Lemme Hear It Again: Giving Thanks for Good Music

This year, Thanksgiving Day will be a little bittersweet for me. In addition to being a day for giving thanks for all that we have and all that we are, it’s also the anniversary of the death of my only sibling, my sister Tasha. It hardly seems like it, but she’s been gone now twice as long as she was here; she passed away in 1988, and was buried on her 15th birthday four days later, a victim of Cancer.

Like our father, about whom I wrote a couple of posts ago, she also left me with a precious musical memory. She was a huge fan of New Edition, especially Ralph Tresvant; neither they nor he, however, provide this memory- that honor belongs to Terence Trent D’Arby. Some of y’all might remember him- he released his debut album Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby back in 1987; that album produced his Billboard Number 1 single “Wishing Well“, and his Number 4 single “Sign Your Name“. This song was a favorite of Tasha’s… one night, I’m sitting at my desk, she’s sitting on my bed and we’re listening to music, when she wanted to hear the song, so I pulled out the CD and put it in the disc player (my first CD player, mind you). After listening to it once, she wanted to hear it again… and after that time she wanted to hear it again… and then again… and again. The song runs for 4:37… she played the song a total of 13 times… her version of how our dad picked up the needle during his favorite part of The Temptations “Just My Imagination” was updated by my sister… she simply hit the “back” button on the CD remote each time the song ended, and let it play again… we listened to that song for A SOLID HOUR! And I’d give everything if I could do it with her again… remembering her through the video…

For this post, I provide my take on the Kanye West album, the profanely titled new joint from Robert Glasper, a new project from Black Violin, the debut from Sudan Archives, and the latest from Gospel artist Travis Greene.


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Kanye West

Jesus Is King

One thing about Kanye, is that he never disappoints… that is, if you’re looking for someone to confound you. After last year’s ye, which is generally acknowledged to be the weakest link in his catalog, one wouldn’t think he could sink any lower; in one way, he didn’t, but in another way, he might be on the way to doing so…. I’ll explain.

Coming from the guy who gave us both “Jesus Walks” and Yeezus, and had been working on a project called Yandhi, I’ve suspected Ye is actually trying to put himself on a par with God; as a Christian myself, I cannot buy into that line of thinking. Ye has been one of my favorite Hip-hop artist for years, but between his recent social commentaries, his avowed support for the current President, and his own personal demons, he’s become a polarizing personality, to the point that it’s getting harder to support him. Witnessing Snoop Dogg release a Gospel album last year, I had a sneaking suspicion that his effort would ultimately be looked upon as disingenuous; after proclaiming in the album that he had changed his ways and wasn’t turning back, he turned around and was back to talking about bitches and hoes again soon thereafter. Ye has gone so far as to assemble a choir, hold Sunday services that have attracted a lot of people… I even heard he asked his staffers to abstain from sex while the album was in production, and that he was limiting his use of cuss words to a couple a day. All that being said, I’m hoping the same can’t be said of Ye a year from now, that all of this was just a thing for this point in time.

As for the music itself, its about 27 minutes of his new dogma on display. For the most part, he says the right things, although I’m still not sold on the conviction and sincerity. He comes from a standpoint I’m not familiar with, a rich Christian that doesn’t already pastor a megachurch (like his buddy Joel Osteen); some of his rhetoric is taken more from a standpoint of privilege than one of humility. He enlisted the help of my favorite Gospel singer, Fred Hammond, to appear on one track (“Hands On“), jazz saxophonist Kenny G appears on “Use This Gospel“, and Ty Dolla $ign on “Everything We Need“. Most tracks are on the edge of simplistic- he won’t make you forget the Kirk Franklins, Richard Smallwoods or Tye Tribbetts of the world anytime soon… but, on the plus side of the equation, it would seem the album is appealing to those individuals who can’t be reached by a traditional church, so this project is just crazy enough to work, to bring new souls into the kingdom. That’s what I’m hoping for… Here is the audio for “Use This Gospel“…


Robert Glasper

F— Yo Feelings

Mixtapes try to create a flow that builds, but continues seemlessly throughout the session; many miss the mark, often sounding like a bunch of spare ideas thrown together. The latest album from keyboardist Glasper, which was released a little over a month ago, attempts to create the flow of a mixtape; essentially, he invited a legion of talent from the Jazz and Hip-hop worlds, including a legend like Herbie Hancock, to fall through his studio for a jam session. I have to admit, at first, I was so put off by the album’s title, that I was going “f— this album”…… but I like Glasper’s music, especially his Black Music 1 & 2 discs from 2012-13, so I decided to check it out.

This album comes right out the box wrong, by having comic (or so he calls himself) Affion Crockett begin by launching into a very unfunny bit where he’s roasting each of the band members, and at the end of each individual roast, evoking the album’s title; then he addresses the audience by telling them to tell their neighbor on both sides to “f— yo feelings”… after some more unnecessary profanity, I skipped to the next track, “This Changes Everything” which features Denzil Curry among others- it changed nothing at all for me. The next several tracks were just marginally better; there are 19 total tracks on the album, and other than “In Case You Forgot“, a short instrumental interlude, it took until the title track – track 7 – before things got interesting to me. Now… starting here, it got really good, and I’m going “yes, this is what I’m looking for!” The ladies took over for these tracks, and although “f— yo feelings” was still the prevailing sentiment, it was now being expressed with purpose : “Endangered Black Woman“, which features Andra Day and Staceyann Chin, and “Expectations” featuring Baby Rose among others direct their venom at anyone who objects to who they are and how they’re made, while “All I Do” which features SiR, Bridget Kelly and Songbird is easily the most soothing track in the set – it is a gorgeous, sexy, simmering piece of work. “Aah Whoa” features Muhsinah and Queen Sheba, and is basically a kiss-off of a lover, while “I Want You“, which is credited to just Glasper, goes in the opposite direction. Now after this, the album reverses course, and goes into some random tickling of the ivories by Glasper – not bad snippets, but a comedown from the previous tracks. On “DAF FTF“, Glasper basically goes into his thought process in making this mixtape, and it’s pretty raw, and that leads into “Treal” featuring Yasiin Bey, a track that goes on way too long; finally, the closing track “Cold” is actually a very nice instrumental track.

In the final analysis, I get the concept of the album title – I just feel it started off really poorly by having the comic roast the band members and tell his audience to tell someone to “f— yo feelings” – it set the wrong tone for the album, and that tone lasted for the first several tracks. Overall, I like the middle third of the album best, the last third less, and the first third even less still. If Glasper were to read this review (and I hope he does, I welcome comments and feedback), he would probably respond by evoking the album title… and that’s fine. My response to that would then likely be that this is my blog, where I state my opinion on what I hear, so… with all due respect (and a chuckle), back at cha… Here’s the video for the title track, which features Yebba; it has a groovy vibe reminiscent of early Minnie Riperton…


Black Violin

Take the Stairs

The third album from the South Florida duo of Kev Marcus and Wil Baptiste has finally arrived, four years after their last album Stereotypes dropped. These guys deserve a lot of credit for their philanthropic efforts, touring around the country and often playing in venues located in what’s considered urban or lower income areas (like the Opera House in lil ole Newberry, South Carolina), and especially to school students; their goal is to change the perception of what a classically trained violinist looks like- hence the title of their last album.

Their sound is a mixture of Classical and Hip-hop, and when on full display, they show a dazzling virtuosity- check out the video for the track “Showoff“; also check out “Spaz“. The album opener “Rise” and closer “Nimrod” are traditional Classical numbers, while “Serenade” adds beats to the classicism. Then there are several tracks that seem to relegate the duo to the background, as they have vocalists that step to the forefront. In normal circumstances, I’d object to them taking a back seat on their own album, but based on their philanthropy, tracks like “One Step“, “Unbreakable“, “Dreamer“, and “Impossible Is Possible” make sense in reaching the kiddos – they have good, inspirational messages, and besides, if they kept it all Classical and instrumental, it’d be a snooze session for the young’uns.

In the end, I’d like to hear more of what they do best, but I also understand the bigger picture and their focus, which is quite admirable. Here is the video for “Showoff“, which is them at their best…


Sudan Archives

Athena

Earlier this year, while I was researching YouTube for video clips to include with my review for Solange’s album, I happened to run across two new discoveries for me (and for you): Swedish / Gambian singer Seinabo Sey, and this young sista, 24 year old Cincinnati born, L.A. based singer / composer/ violinist Brittany Parks aka Sudan Archives. She describes her name in two parts: the first name is a nickname, and a homage to her fascination with Sudanese and Ghanian folk music, particularly the single string fiddling thing; the last name, which is near and dear to my heart, refers to crate-digging for hidden gems, like a disc jockey. This, her debut full length album, follows a couple of EP’s she released, her 2017 self-titled EP, and last year’s Sink.

I was already gearing up to proclaim this as one of the best albums of the year… and it still may be anointed as such, but as I was listening to the album all the way through the first time, there were a couple of things that gave me reason for pause. The first thing was that her violin wasn’t as prominent as it was in her earlier works, and when there, wasn’t as radical and tribal as before- only the single “Glorious” and “Confessions” reach those levels – a lot of time is spent plucking or strumming the instrument; the second thing is that she apparently wants to throw her hat into an already crowded Alt-Soul ring… like she wants to be the next SZA or something. There are those who do that thing better than her, but nobody else is doing what she had been doing, though- she had carved out a niche for herself – and to a degree, she shelved it here. Now… when she strikes a balance between tribal siren and melancholy Soul chanteuse, like on “Down On Me” and “Coming Up“, the results are very nice, and even nicer when she throws in a little abstract lyrical imagery, such as in “Iceland Moss” and “Pelicans In the Summer“. When she goes more straight-ahead Soul, like on “Green Eyes” or “Limitless“, the results, to me, are less interesting, although they’re still nice cuts.

The two reservations I brought up about the album do not detract from the fact that this is quite an auspicious debut, one that you should definitely check out; I brought them up because I don’t want to see her stray too far away from what got her noticed in the first place, nor get lost in a crowded field of voices that all start to sound alike – continue to explore and display your uniqueness, and give us more of that tribal fiddle… Here is the video for “Glorious“…


Travis Greene

Broken Record

To my way of thinking, all Christian music should be one category… but, of course, it is further segmented and sub-categorized, usually along racial lines. That’s how we get Contemporary Christian, which is mainly White artists, and Gospel, which is traditionally Black artists. Newer artists on both sides of this spectrum are breaking from tradition, and doing their own form of worship music, blurring and blending the genres along the way; one such artist would be 35 year old Delaware native Travis Greene. Broken Record is his third studio, and fourth overall album; for me, he is also locally-based, as he is the pastor of Forward City Church in Columbia, SC. He’s internationally known and acclaimed, having won both Stellar and Billboard Music awards.

Greene’s instrument of choice is an acoustic guitar, and he uses it as his base to create music that touches on multiple styles and genres. “Great Jehovah” is a stompin’ track that includes a banjo and a fiddler – wasn’t expecting an Americana feel, but I very much enjoy that track; in fact, it got my two young children jumping and clapping. “No One Else” and “Broken Vessels” feel kinda Country, but they’re also nice tracks; closer to what I expect from someone considered Gospel is “Won’t Let Go” and “Loved By You“. The two centerpieces of the album are “Good & Loved“, which features Steffany Gretzinger, and “Respond“. The former also attaches a prayer from Steffany after the end of the song, and it’s set up as a separate track- combined, it’s 12 minutes long… a little overlong, in my opinion, but then again, you can’t hurry worship; the latter track unofficially ends after about 4 1/2 minutes, but then Travis allows his three background vocalists a moment of solo worship… one of these vocalists, D’Nar Young, is a young man to whom I’m acquainted and have had the pleasure of watching grow up in my home church, from a young pre-teen who used to sing too loud in the mic during Men’s Ministry events, to leading Praise & Worship for the Young Adult Ministry on 4th Sundays…. he, as well as the others, provided effectual and fervent worship over the final four minutes of the track. The remaining tracks don’t identify as a specific style, but they’re all effective vessels of worship, and that’s all that really matters.

This album is an excellent example of worship music, as it has the correct balance of all of its’ necessary elements – it doesn’t come off as overtly religious and holy, but it is a truly genuine expression of worship by individuals serious about their praise… and the music is varied, and interesting. It has serious crossover appeal because of these things, so I expect this one to receive universal acclaim from all sides of the Christian spectrum… Here’s the video for “Respond“…


Sometimes, It’s NOT Music to My Ears

A colleague once asked me about the methods I use in determining what to review for this blog; I told them it’s very much the same way I’ve amassed a huge collection of music- just by listening to a lot of different stuff. A better question may be how I’ve ended up listening to some of the artists I like.

Over the years, one of the methods I’ve used to check out a new artist would begin with something as benign as their name… if I thought the name of the artist or group was cool, I’d check ’em out. That method has produced some of the groups I’ve listened to constantly over the years; I found my favorite all-time band, The Stranglers, that way back during my Punk years. Most of the artists on the 4AD label, particularly Cocteau Twins and Wolfgang Press, had cool names. Of more recent vintage, Thievery Corporation and The Black Keys were a curiosity choice based solely on their name; today, they are among my favorite groups. Many artists today have really stupid names that generate no curiosity for me; I’ll probably never listen to YoungBoy Never Broke Again, or anyone else with a name that ridiculous. Another method is hype (that’s how I ended up listening to Cardi B. last year), and lastly, past experience with the artist. Now… once I have an artist queued up, I’m hoping the music justifies and satisfies my curiosity; regrettably, sometimes what I hear is NOT music to my ears, which is contrary to my tagline. But sometimes it happens; when it does, I’ll review it anyway, so you’ll know what’s up, too. Even if I don’t like something, I’ll always advise you to listen to it, so that you can decide for yourself- maybe you’ll like it.

Time for a disclaimer: The preceding comments do not necessarily apply to the music I’m about to review. There. In this post, I have reviews of the new Fantasia album, the latest from Sturgill Simpson, a new joint from Reggae legend Mad Professor, and a new album from The Avett Brothers.


The Heard (REVIEWS)

Fantasia

Sketchbook

The first verse from “History“, the opening track of Fantasia’s sixth album begins: ” Thought it was over for me / Nah, don’t never believe that / So now I need you to come closer towards me / I’m about to state true facts / It ain’t ever over for me…” Who said that about you, ‘Tasia??? I didn’t hear that… Anyway, her first album (not counting her 2017 Christmas album) since 2016’s The Definition Of… makes a powerful opening statement, and sets the tone for a collection of tunes that paint a portrait of imperfections throughout her life, things that have happened to her that have made her stronger… hence, the album’s title.

One of the things I’m always prepared for when listening to Fantasia is for her to go all Patti Labelle on us and start screaming lyrics out; I was pleasantly surprised to see she kept her raspy, gritty, very expressively soulful voice relatively contained. After her opening statement, she goes into a Trap duet with T-Pain for the relatively wretched “PTSD“, which in this case stands for “Post Traumatic Sex Disorder”. Ugggh! But then she gets back on course with “Believer“, which celebrates the goodness of her man, and the early release track “Enough” and “The Way!“, both of which celebrate relationships in full bloom. After that, we get to two of the standout tracks for me: “Bad Girl“, which finds her telling us the type of woman a man needs (of course, she’s it)… “Then I’ll be the bad girl / The one that you really want / The one that won’t settle for nothing / And make you show just what you’re made of / Yeah, I’ll be the bad girl / The one that you’re scared to love / I’ll make you face all your fears, then wipe all your tears / So toughen up and fall for the bad girl…” and the call to arms track “Free“, which asks the question “We gon’ get it right, when we gon’ get it right?“… the highlight for me with these tracks is the string arrangements, which were done by my girl Nicole Neely, who’s a personal acquaintance of mine from church, who’s going on to do big things… BIG UPS to her, these arrangements are tight!… We move on to “Holy Ghost“, a kind of Gospel/Trap hybrid that’ll be performed by every young adult and youth choir in the Black church at some point, and “Take Off” which simulates a Burna Boy-type rhythm over which she expresses hope for a budding relationship. “Fighting” is a gorgeous track of two people setting out to conquer the world together, and “Warning” is a Rock-influenced track directed at the sistas about the ‘ladies in wait’ for their man. Finally, there’s the duet with her mother, a sweet Southern Soul track “Looking for You“, which is a homage to God.

This may be the first time I’ve ever given a track-by-track account of an entire album, but that’s what you have here; every track has something to give, so I thought it pertinent to at least mention them all. This is really a pretty nice album – at first, I was a little cool to it, especially after hearing “PTSD” – but now I’m cool with it. There’s a lil flava for everybody, so you’re bound to find something you like here… Here’s the video for “Bad Girl“…


Sturgill Simpson

SOUND & FURY

The fourth album from 41 year old Kentucky native Simpson takes a left turn from his previous efforts, which were a hybrid of outlaw Country and Prog Rock. After winning the GRAMMY for Best Country Album for his 2017 album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, which was loosely based on the birth of his son, Simpson creates a soundtrack for an anime film on Netflix.

SOUND & FURY is an appropriate name for the album, for it is an exercise in both; it’s sequenced as if he’s changing the station on a radio dial, so the tracks veer from one style to another, abruptly, and often in surprising fashion. If you’re looking for something that sounds like some of his earlier work, about the only place you’ll find it is on “All Said and Done“; otherwise, you get a Disco-flavored track in “A Good Look“, a track that reminds me of The Cars in “Mercury In Retroglade“, the punkish boogie of “Last Man Standing“, and the sleaziness of “The Fastest Horse in Town“. He’s got synthesizers on several tracks, prominently featuring on tracks like “Best Clockmaker on Mars” and “Make Art Not Friends“- this track’s title, I believe, is a summation of the tone of the album- a project done on the artist’s terms, without regard for what you may think of it. As far as what is most accessible in the set, “Remember to Breathe” and “Sing Along” are as close as this album gets to being radio-friendly.

In true outlaw fashion, Simpson has bucked trends and expectations with this release, making an album that really isn’t Country at all, but is a lot of other things. It’s everything he wants it to be, and perhaps nothing you had in mind…. and he’s perfectly fine with that. Personally, I think it’s freaking brilliant; I wish more artists would take this approach, instead of trying to please the masses… Here is the video for “Sing Along“…


Mad Professor

Mad Professor Meets Gaudi

Two worlds collide, sort of, on the latest album from legendary British dubmeister Neil Fraser aka Mad Professor. As the ’20’s approach us, he will be entering his 5th decade in the industry, and at 64 years of age, shows no sign of letting up on his prolific proclivity and running his Ariwa label. I had the good fortune to catch him in concert on a double bill with another Dub legend, Lee “Scratch” Perry back in November 1997 at, of all places, the Cubby Bear Lounge, in the shadows of Wrigley Field in Chicago; that was a great show, despite Perry’s characteristic off-kilter demeanor. This time around, he joins forces with Italian World fusion artist Gaudi, who’s been around almost as long as he has, for his latest project.

It’s hard to say how much input Gaudi had in the making of this album, as this sounds very much like most of Mad Professor’s other albums – then again, since Gaudi dabbles in Dub quite heavily himself, this may be very much a collaborative effort. I was actually hoping for more influence on this project from Gaudi- less reggae, but more from other genres, to see what Professor would do with ’em; alas, everything here is reggae. He takes a track “Cry Cry Blood” from Steel Pulse’s Mass Manipulation album and gives it the dub treatment as “Cry Dub“, as well as tracks from ex-Black Uhuru frontman Mykal Rose (“Sharp In Dub“), and British reggae and Ariwa label artist Macka B. (“Dub On Camera“).

This is a typical Mad Professor album, lots of good tracks, a couple of dud dubs, but surprisingly little effect from the collaboration with Gaudi. The audio of the album’s opening track “Smoking High” is included here; it’s a reggae dub version of The Staple Singers “Let’s Do It Again“…


The Avett Brothers

Closer Than Together

For their latest project, Scott and Seth Avett declared they weren’t making a political record; the album would, however, speak on current events of the day. And then they went out and did an album with a lot of political and social commentary on it. Now, if you’ve read this blog any length of time, you know that sort of content will usually perk up my antennae and prompt me to listen to what they have to say. This is my first exposure to this Concord, NC – based Americana group, so I have no history of what they have sounded like, written about, or anything like that over their previous nine studio albums; I have an open mind, though, so I wanted to hear their musings on this one.

As with any artist who sticks their neck out to give an opinion on social and political matters, they face a backlash from fans that don’t share their opinion; as expected, some have roiled against some of the tracks, giving the usual “stick to music” admonishments or other counter argument. Three tracks stick out here for their subject matter: “We Americans” is especially thorny, in that it recalls the mistakes made by the country they staunchly defend and represent… ” A misnamed people and a kidnapped race / Laws may change, but we can’t erase the scars of a nation / Of children devalued and disavowed / Displaced by greed and the arrogance of manifest destiny / Short-sighted to say it was a long time ago / Not even two life times have passed since the days of Lincoln / The sins of Andrew Jackson, the shame of Jim Crow / And time moves slow when the tragedies are beyond description…” Of course, they’re right about what they said, but some folks don’t wanna hear that. Then there’s “Bang Bang“, which addresses their disdain for gratuitously violent movies, and also comments on those gun-loving individuals… ” I live in the country because I love peace and quiet / But all of my neighbors have closets full of machine guns / And every Sunday they’re out there, pretending to be Rambo / And I’m in here pretending like Sunday is still sacred…” Ouch! Finally, there’s “New Woman’s World“, where they contradict the honorable James Brown… “It used to be a man’s world, but we didn’t treat it right / It used to be a man’s world, but all we did was fight / I’m glad it’s finally in the hands of the women and the girls / I can’t wait to see what they do with what’s left of the world…” This song has a decent melody, but this and “Bang Bang‘ both come off as somewhat wimpy and emasculating. As for some of the other tracks here, the back end has some ballads that I actually like- they remind me somewhat of early Elton John – the closer “It’s Raining Today” is especially nice. The single “High Steppin’” includes some electronic flourishes, and is the personal statement of a self-described outsider, while “Tell the Truth” advises the listener to take care of self first, and stop trying to please everyone, at your own expense.

I can certainly appreciate some of the sentiments presented here, although some will find this effort a bit preachy and sanctimonious. Overall, I’m lukewarm to this project – some good tracks, and some weak tracks. Here is the video for “High Steppin‘”…


Pick Up the Needle, Move It Back, and Play It Again

My dad would’ve turned 90 years old this past week, and one of my fondest memories of him is how he helped shape my love for music. As a child, he showed me how to play records… how to stack 45’s on the spindle so they could drop down to be played… how to play a specific track on an album by dropping the needle in the spot between the grooves… I got my first taste of steppin’ when he used to dance with the support pole in the basement, etc.; by the age of 9, I was DJ’ing our Friday night basement parties. He was a huge Temptations fan, and one of his favorite songs of theirs was “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)“…. Every time…… I mean every. single. time. Paul Williams opened it up, and Eddie Kendricks continued the part of the song where he sang “Ev’ry night on my knees I pray, Dear Lord, hear my plea / Don’t ever let another take her love from me or I would surely die…” My dad would walk over to the record player, pick up the needle, move it back to roughly the beginning of that passage, and drop the needle to play it again. And he would stand there at the record player as it played again, and he would repeat this process at least two more times before he would let the rest of that sublime lyrical passage complete… “Her love is heavenly, when her arms enfold me / I hear a tender rhapsody / but in reality, she doesn’t even know me…” Ahhhh, the memories… Happy heavenly Birthday, dad…

For this post, I’m reviewing the ‘lost’ Miles Davis album, the solo debut endeavor from Brittany Howard, the new album from Lindsey Stirling, and a listen to both the new Brand New Heavies album, and an album from a group that split off from them.


The Heard (Reviews)

Miles Davis

Rubberband

In 1985, after leaving his longtime label Columbia for Warner Brothers, Miles Davis began recording a new album that he hoped would finally yield him a hit single- after all, he’d received all the accolades anyone could garner with previous albums, but never actually had a hit song that got airplay on the radio. He was just four years out of a self-imposed six year hiatus from music, and his four albums released since his return were not well-received by critics. So Rubberband was supposed to be the album that would finally achieve his goal; he was gonna have guests from the R&B world… rumor had it Chaka Khan and Al Jarreau would be on it… and it appeared he was ready to be a sideman on some tracks on his album. As it turned out, the recording sessions for the album didn’t go well, and eventually the label scrapped the project altogether; Miles would go on to begin recording the sessions that would become his most successful ‘latter years’ album, Tutu, which was released the following year. Recently, Miles’ nephew Vince Wilburn Jr., who was the drummer on this album, along with the album’s original producers, decided it was time to finish it, and finally release it, and so now, we’ve been presented with the so called ‘lost’ Miles Davis album from 34 years ago.

I have mixed feelings about this album. On the one hand, it’s great to be able to get some never-heard-before Miles. There are a few good tracks here, most of the instrumental ones, showing what Miles was attempting to do. The title track is the best track, and the one where you get the most Miles, while “This Is It” is a funky send up that sounds like it could’ve been a Cosby Show theme, and “Give It Up” is another funky track with a bit of a Rock edge. “Maze” was supposedly written as a tribute to Frankie Beverly, while “Echoes In Time/The Wrinkle” is a nice, though overly long track (imagine a nine minute Miles track being considered overly long). On the other hand, we have the set opener “Rubberband of Life” which features Ledisi… in 1985, she would’ve been 13 years old…. it’s actually a nice track, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Doo Bop, Miles’ 1992 album that fused Jazz and Hip-hop, but I don’t think it belongs here. Same thing with “So Emotional” which features Lalah Hathaway, who would’ve been all of 16 when this was to have been released… this is a smoldering Quiet Storm-type track. “Paradise” is what I imagine Miles would sound like if he had featured on Santana’s Supernatural album, and someone named Randy Hall does his best Al Jarreau imitation on “I Like What We Make Together“…. where was Al??? The record label, I suspect, may be responsible for trying to add sales by adding some contemporary tunes in this collection, but that disturbs and undermines the concept of this being a ‘lost’ album from 1985.

If you’re a completist on certain artists, like I am, you want every note the artist ever performed, and you’ll probably go out and buy this album; I know I will at some point, but not right away. I say that because it’s not a great album – there weren’t enough scraps of recorded material to piece together a great album… but just because it’s Miles, it’s worthy enough for me to add to my collection… at some point. Here’s the audio clip for the title track…


Brittany Howard

Jaime

The debut solo album from Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard has finally arrived, hopefully to bridge the gap between Sound and Color, their last album, and new material. Brittany has been quite busy, having a couple of side projects: the punky Thunderbitch, and the Country-ish Bermuda Triangle; she also recently got married. The album is titled after her late sister Jaime, who died from a rare form of eye cancer, and was co-produced by the Shakes engineer Shawn Everett; she is also joined on this album by the Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell, and the exceptional Jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper, among others.

It took me a couple of listens to get a full grasp on what she was doing in this album, but it seems she took a cross country journey with her partner (now wife), and along the way, had some experiences that affected her, and also prompted her to reflect back on her younger days; things now began to make sense, whereas before they didn’t make sense. Overall, it’s about love- and we know that love is manifested in many ways. On “He Loves Me” she sings “I know He still loves me / when I’m smokin’ blunts / loves when I’m drinking too much / He loves me then, yeah / He loves me when I do what I want / He loves me, he doesn’t judge me…”, speaking, of course, of God’s love – since she begins the track by saying she doesn’t go to church anymore, I call it the lament of the lapsed Baptist… On “Tomorrow“, she is uneasy about the current state of the world, but holds out hope for tomorrow, and then when it gets there, not knowing what to do next, but remaining hopeful about the next tomorrow, where she wants everyone to love one another. “Stay High” is the album’s best track, also the most accessible one, and is a nice bluesy track yearning to remain in a euphoric state with a significant other. Things get noisy on “13th Century Metal” where she makes declarations about who she is and how she intends to live, and “Goat Head” recalls an event during her childhood in Alabama, where a racist placed the head of a goat in her dad’s car after slashing his tires, in an attempt at intimidation towards her White mother and Black father. On “Georgia“, she sings from a child’s perspective of a crush she has on an older woman – at the time, she didn’t realize the connection of that scenario to her later ‘queer’ self, while “Short & Sweet” is basically about having a fling, and then “Baby” tells the story of a concluded relationship that was one-sided.

Overall, the album may present a bit of a challenge to the casual listener, as she often stretches the sonic limits of Soul, Blues, Jazz and to some degree, Alt-Rock, but it’s well worth it to conquer that challenge; this is very much an example of what puts the concept of ‘art’ into music – check it out. Here is the video for “Stay High“, which features actor Terry Crews…


Lindsey Stirling

Artemis

There are a surprising number of violinists out here doing different types of music not associated with Classical… several in Jazz and Hip-hop, and of course, we had Rock artists like ELO, and the fusion of styles from the likes of Jean-Luc Ponty. As a violinist and violist who hasn’t played regularly in years, I’m thinking of getting back out there, too- pair myself with a pianist and become the wedding violinist; as far as I’m aware, 33 year old Arizona native Lindsey Stirling is the only EDM violinist, so she has that niche all to herself. Artemis is her fifth studio album overall, and first since her 2016 release Brave Enough; included in that total is a Christmas album Warmer In the Winter, which was released two years ago.

Artemis is the goddess of the moon in Greek mythology, and is also her character in a comic book she’s developing; as the album cover suggests, there is also a heavy influence in anime. She explains the concept of the moon as ‘bringing light to darkness’; it exudes a quiet strength, and that also speaks to more human subjects, like having the ability to deal with certain events in life, and having the strength to shine your personal light through dark times… I like that… and that quality shines though on a track like the beautiful “Between Twilight“. She came to prominence by combining Classical and Dubstep, and that trend continues on tracks like “Foreverglow“, “Til The Light Goes Out” and “Love Goes On and On“, which features vocals from Amy Lee from Evanescense. The set opens with the anthemic single “Underground“, and closes with a remix of another single, “The Upside” which features Elle King; the original version also appears here. The title track is an explosive and powerful track, while “Darkside” is surprisingly playful and upbeat.

It’ll probably be no surprise that I really dig this album… I have a soft spot for violinists doing contemporary music (especially Electronica); she is a highly accomplished player, and she uses it to great effect. I love the use of the Middle Eastern and Asian -style melodic structures she uses throughout the album, and the variance in styles and tempos from track to track. Very nice project!… Check out the video for “Underground“…


The Brand New Heavies

TBNH

On May 14, 1994, about a month after the release of their third album Brother Sister, The Brand New Heavies appeared in concert at Cabaret Metro in Chicago; I was there that night, and what I witnessed was an almost spiritual experience – one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. They were my favorite group of the 90’s, and I’ve followed their career ever since, so I’m thrilled about the release of this, their 10th official studio album, and first since 2014’s Sweet Freaks; my euphoria is tempered somewhat because the band has gone through a bit of a metamorphosis in the past five years.

Since we last heard from them, drummer, principal songwriter and co-founding member Jan Kincaid, along with the last permanent lead singer Dawn Joseph, left the group. According to Jan, via interviews he’s given to other news outlets, they were working without a manager, leading to some questionable decisions made by members of the group. He also claims the other group members didn’t want to evolve the sound, and the other members seemed to resent the bond he and Dawn were developing. We all know there are three sides to every story, but whatever the story is, the end result to me is like a cake missing a main ingredient- it might still taste good, but it ain’t like it used to be.

So what we’re left with are the remaining two members, guitarist Simon Bartholomew, and bassist Andrew Levy to soldier on, along with a new drummer. For this album, there is a rotating cast of lead singers: among them, we have everyone’s favorite, the most well-known BNH lead vocalist N’dea Davenport, who appears on three tracks; Siedah Garrett, who succeeded N’dea when she left the first time, on a couple of tracks; Angela Ricci, who seems to be the heir apparent, on three tracks. Also along for this ride include R&B veteran Angie Stone, and up ‘n coming British male vocalist Laville, whom I featured prominently a couple of posts ago. The lead track from the album, “Getaway” is classic BNH, sung by Davenport, and it also lifts the familiar horn stabs from The Emotions classic “Best of My Love“; confusingly, the video for the track features Angela Ricci on vocals… Here’s the video…

The overall tone of the album, as was their last album, is a non-stop party; most tracks are upbeat, with the exception of a couple of mid-tempo tracks, “Together” featuring Angie Stone, and “Dontcha Wanna” featuring Laville. The sound remains the same, although there is a bit of a lack of depth to some of the tracks; BNH have always been uplifting while you’re groovin’, and “Just Believe In You” and “It’s My Destiny“, the two Siedah tracks, fit that bill. Even though it’s not the same without Jan & Dawn, or N’dea full time, this is still good stuff… Here is the audio for the track for which they should’ve titled the album, “The Funk Is Back“, which is sung by Simon…

Now… let’s do a quick comparison of sounds…. I’m gonna take a look at the spin-off group from the Brand New Heavies called MF Robots… they released an album that somehow got by me in the spring of last year…

MF Robots “Music for Robots”

So this is where Jan Kincaid and Dawn Joseph ended up after leaving The Brand New Heavies – establishing a new group with a silly name. They explained the reasoning for the name as a nod to the continuing automation of the world’s workforce, to the point that someday, they’ll be making music for robots. They abbreviated the first two words to give the name a naughty element, hence the official group name MF Robots.

As you might expect, after performing a certain style of music for the last 30 plus years, your style isn’t going to radically change with a new group, so the new outfit of Jan & Dawn plus their hired help sound pretty much like The Brand New Heavies to me… I would hope that if they never reconcile with Simon and Andrew, years from now, they don’t go out on tour and do BNH songs, while BNH is on tour too- you often hear of several versions of the same group being out there… it’s pretty sad. I would hope this ends up being just a side project, and they all come together again.

Overall, since the album sounds very much like a BNH album, that means it sounds good… proof is in the mix here, check out their videos… for “Come On With the Good Thing“…

The Night Is Calling“… this one will remind you of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough“…

and “Believe In Love“… this track, I believe, is the statement track for why this group exists. There isn’t a progression or change in the music, as Jan suggested as a reason for leaving BNH; if I’m not mistaken, it appears Jan & Dawn’s relationship is more than about the music, and that’s what likely played a big part in the parting of ways…


Critiquing Music is a Labor of Love

I’ve been writing about music, off and on, for somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 years, all out of love, and the desire to be another Nelson George. As this post is being published during the week of Labor Day, I remind myself again of why I continue to do it without any recognition or compensation: I simply LOVE good music, and I want to tell everybody about it!

For this post, I have reviews of six new releases, from Raphael Saadiq, Common, Snoh Aalegra, Jazzmeia Horn, The Teskey Brothers, and a reissue of a classic from Massive Attack; let’s check ’em out….


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Raphael Saadiq

Jimmy Lee

It had been a long time (eight years, to be exact), since we last heard from the man born as Charles Ray Wiggins, but known to us as Raphael Saadiq; his last album, 2011’s Stone Rollin‘ was a critically acclaimed exercise in mostly vintage Rock and Soul. That acclaim, however, didn’t translate into sales, as it was commercially polarizing, especially amongst the R&B crowd, many of whom wanted him to bring his music into the 21st Century; his 2008 album The Way I See It was a heavily Motown-influenced masterpiece that was both commercially and critically successful. Saadiq has long been a champion for the “classic” Soul sound, live instrumentation, and such; Tony! Toni! Tone! was one of the few groups I could stand to listen to as the 90’s was happening, because of that aesthetic.

For this album, he does bring both the music and aesthetic into the current…. perhaps too much so for some. This is a very personal album, one that tackles two heavy issues that hit close to home: addiction and mass containment. The album’s title is named for his late older brother, who died of a heroin overdose years ago; the second issue is, to some extent, intertwined with the first, as the effects of the cycle of addiction, from the standpoint of the supplier, user, and government all have worked to manifest themselves into mass incarceration of people of color. The song content seems to follow this cycle, too, as the first couple of tracks (“Sinners Prayer” and “So Ready“) seem to speak from the viewpoint of the supplier, while the next several tracks speak from the standpoint of the addict. Of these, “Something Keeps Calling” which features Rob Bacon, is the most accessible, and easily the best track on the album. The last section receives a bridge from “Belongs to God“, which features Rev. E Baker, and is a straight-up Gospel quartet tune that leads into the dual tracks “Rikers Island” and “Rikers Island Redux“, the former featuring the lament from Raphael that “too many niggas in Rikers Island “… and the latter featuring a spoken word from Daniel Watts about mass incarceration. Lastly, “Rearview” features verses from Kendrick Lamar, and takes a retrospective look at the addict’s life, and questions “How can I change the world, when I can’t change myself?“.

This album is sequenced in a manner where the tracks abruptly stop and move into the next; this is how Blood Orange programs his albums, and it was also heavily used on Solange’s last album; I’m not a big fan of this format, but at least most of the tracks are fully realized before they cut off. Still, the album flies through its’ 13 tracks in just 39 minutes, and is more an album for thinking and absorbing, than for singing and dancing to its’ tracks. I think that’s what I was looking for, which is why I had to give this project multiple listens to get it; some may be put off by the content, sequencing, etc. during the first listen. Overall, It’s OK, now that I’ve got it; some just won’t get it… Here’s the video for “Something Keeps Calling“…


Snoh Aalegra

-ugh… those feels again

The globalization of R&B continues to expand into other parts of the world; in Sweden, there seems to be a small, but vibrant scene. From this scene comes 31 year old singer Snoh Aalegra, born and raised in Sweden to Iranian parents. In the musical food chain, she is in the middle, between an artist like fellow Swede Seinabo Sey, a singer I’ve written about before, and is worth a listen (she’s a Swedish/Gambian mix), and who would be slotted below Snoh, and on the other side would be the artist I think is her obvious target, Alicia Keys. This album is the followup to, and continuation of, her 2017 debut Feels.

This album has been described as a breakup album, but what I hear is the life cycle of a love affair… the ambivalence… hopefulness…. euphoria… lust… love!… regret…. remorse… peace with how it ended. The four singles released prior to the album all appear here- “I Want You Around ” is a gorgeous lil’ stepper, while “Find Someone Like You” (my favorite) is another beautiful track that sounds like it could’ve been sung by Adele, but was wonderfully done by Snoh; “You” is a plaintive love song, and “Situationship” sounds as awkward as the scenario it describes. Snoh changes up the flava, with a mixture of Hip-hop Soul (“Whoa” and “Nothing to Me“), a nod to more of a 90’s sound (“Toronto“), the accessible Pop of the singles and other tracks like “Love Like That” and “I Didn’t Mean to Fall In Love“, and the dope straight up Hip-hop of the closing track “Peace“. Her voice ranges from velvety to emotionally gritty, and the best part? There are NO features on the album, just Snoh – she gets MAJOR points from me for that alone.

This one is an overall thumbs up for me; this is the kind of Snoh I like. It gives me some nice warm “feels”…. Here is the video for “I Want You Around“…


Common

Let Love

My bias for some of my native hometown artists may rear its’ head again; Common continues to be my favorite rapper, both for flow and lyrical content, and also for his extensive portfolio into other areas, such as acting, writing, and philanthropy, as well as for the multiple awards bestowed upon him – GRAMMY, Academy, Golden Globe. This, his 12th album, follows the release of his latest book Let Love Have the Last Word, and his 2016 album Black America Again.

I have to admit this review delayed this article from being published, as I wanted to make sure I heard what I thought I heard… after all, Common is such a cerebral brotha, I wanted to make sure I got what he’s saying. In the foreword for the book, Common says he wanted to “share my process, digging deeper, and trying again, and continuing to trust God that we all have an opportunity to live in freedom, love, and positivity when we do the work on self…” So the album actually runs a common (pardon the pun) theme, in that it’s about love and its’ manifestations. He reprises his earlier ode to Hip-hop with “HER Love“, which features Daniel Caesar, celebrates being an MC on “Hercules“, pays tribute to his mother on “Forever Your Love” which features BJ the Chicago Kid, and tells a rather humorous (to me) tale of infidelity in “Fifth Story“. Elsewhere, “Show Me That You Love Me” features a verse from Jill Scott, and tackles questionable fatherhood decisions, while “Memories of Home” looks back at his earlier self, trying to deal with unresolved issues from childhood, “Leaders” pays homage to people from Chitown, and finally “God Is Love” ties everything together, as everything he does is done from a God-centric perspective, and that the subjects of God and love are intertwined.

With this album, Common shifts his mood from one of anger, as portrayed on his last album, to hope; it’s a change we all make as we get older. I had the pleasure of meeting Common through a co-worker back in the mid-90’s when he was still Common Sense, and he had that raw, youthful energy about him; here, he is more laid back, the music is mostly jazzy, almost loungey, and he’s more contemplative – a mood befitting a man in his late 40’s. To see hope at this stage of life isn’t naive, as some have suggested, it’s positive (and I’m as jaded as anyone, and even I see hope these days). But seeing hope isn’t trying to save the world; we know better. We just hope it changes, and we will do our part individually to effect said change. Good job with this one, brotha Rasheed, as always… Here is the video for “Hercules“…


Jazzmeia Horn

Love and Liberation

It’s a rarity to find a sista in her late 20’s not into the current R&B or Hip-hop styles, but when you do, your ears can be rewarded handsomely; such is the case with this 28 year old Dallas native, NYC based Jazz vocalist. This is her sophomore album, following up her 2017 debut release A Social Call.

You can easily ascertain that she’s well-studied in classic Jazz, as you can tell by her style; you’ll pick up elements of Sarah Vaughn’s no-nonsense, sassy style, coupled with the scat ability of a DeeDee Bridgewater, herself a student of the stylings of Ella Fitzgerald. She throws in a heavy dose of her own Millennial attitude to round it all out; what you get is a new school Jazz diva who’s already quite accomplished in her genre. From the opening track “Free Your Mind“, through the sassy “Out the Window” and “When I Say“, to the defiant, Jon Hendricks/Hubert Laws composed, Ray Charles-styled “No More” and the juke joint Blues of “Still Tryin‘”, Jazzmeia injects plenty of personality into the songs. Eight of the album’s twelve songs are self-penned, with the standout Jazz standard being the closing track, Johnny Mercer’s “I Thought About You“, in which she is accompanied only by string bass.

This album is a pleasure to listen to; it is unfortunate, however, that in today’s musical climate, she will likely not get the exposure, airplay, etc. she deserves, as she’s not trapped in Trap, not a sullen Soul artist, or a profane Hip-hop flava of the moment. She’s got real talent, style, and… (you know it’s coming)… she purdy too! These days, Jazz is a niche style, and it has been mentioned, like Rock, as showing signs of dying away. Many of the Jazz greats of the past started making a name for themselves around her current age; it will be someone like her that will help keep that fire lit for the next generation. No video is available for any of the album’s tracks, but here is the audio for “Free Your Mind“…


The Teskey Brothers

Run Home Slow

Having earlier spoke of the continued globalization of R&B, I ran across these guys in the New Music Friday playlist on Spotify last week. This is a quartet founded by two brothers from the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia who seem to have a penchant for the sound of Memphis’ Stax Records. Run Home Slow is the followup to last year’s debut Half Mile Harvest.

Somewhere in heaven, Otis Redding, Joe Cocker, and Bobby Womack are looking down on this band and smiling; those of us here on Earth have a reason to smile, too. These guys knock it out of the park with their mixture of Soul and Blues circa the late 60’s, with a little early 70’s Rock thrown in there as well. Lead singer Josh Teskey has a gritty, soulful voice that seems aged by some brown liquor… and for being Australian, I don’t pick up any hint of an accent. The second single “So Caught Up” is sooo good, and proof of what I’m talking about, but it abounds throughout the album, from the early 60’s Soul of the opener “Let Me Let You Down” through several tracks with titles like “Carry You“, “Hold Me“, and “Paint My Heart” (the long, kinda psychedelic Rock track here), to the current single “Rain“, and an earlier single “Man of the Universe“, whose opening reminds me of Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped By a Thing Called Love“.

If you like good, old school Rhythm & Blues (I spelled that out for a reason… the definition of R&B!), do yourself a favor and check these guys out; it’ll be well worth your time… Here is the video for “So Caught Up“…


Massive Attack

Mezzanine (Deluxe Edition)

This is a reissue of the group’s 1998 masterpiece, remastered and expanded with a bonus disc of dub remixes from frequent collaborator, Britain’s dub mixologist extraordinaire Mad Professor. Inexplicably, this album was originally scheduled for release back in December, but was delayed time and time again, finally just now seeing the light of day.

The original album has been remastered, and a half dozen of the album’s tracks have been remixed, along with a couple of new tracks. For me, the standout dub was for “Teardrop“, which features Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins, and is also my favorite track from the original album. Curiously, there is no remix for “Man Next Door“, one of three tracks featuring reggae veteran Horace Andy- that one seemed like it would be a perfect fit for Mad Professor’s wizardry. There have been many remixes of tracks from this album floating around over the years, including some versions of these remixes, so I don’t understand the delays – they attributed them to production issues. This album sounds as fresh now as it did when it was released; in fact, it may be more relevant now, due to the prevalence of all of today’s societal paranoias. Here is the audio for “Teardrop“…


Lost In Music, Feel So Alive, I Quit My 9 to 5 (not really)

After finding it to be a bit of a struggle to find anything to write about in the last post, I was the recipient of a minor deluge of interesting new music. For this post, I review the new Chance the Rapper album, as well as new music from Nigeria’s Burna Boy, a mixtape from Blood Orange, and a pair of albums from a couple of British artists who have collaborated with each other, Ash Walker and Laville.

The inspiration for this post’s title comes from one of the hit singles from the 1979 album from Sister Sledge We Are Family… I lifted a portion of the song’s chorus, which I’ve been feeling in my soul… wish I could quit my job and get lost in the music, while getting paid for doing so… here’s the video of the sisters performing the song… they were purdy, too… allofem’… probably still are… Joni Sledge is no longer with us, having succumbed to cancer a few years ago… R.I.P….


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Chance the Rapper

The Big Day

I really, really, REALLY wanted to gush all over this album – after all, the 26 year old Chicago native born Chancelor Bennett is, for me, a hometown hero of sorts… he’s a community activist and his philanthropic efforts are well-known, and he’s been a commercial pitchman for various products. He is also a GRAMMY Award-winning rapper for his Coloring Book project, an album no-one bought (a bone of contention of mine… not against him, of course, but against an industry where physical units no longer matter- he won based on streaming). Hence, despite the fact that he has released three projects to date, this is his official “debut” album, one that you can actually own for posterity, to pass on to your kids.

Now… don’t let my opening statement convince you that I didn’t like this album… I do… I just don’t love it. This project should’ve been credited to Chance & Friends, as he has a guest list as long as the album’s tracklist… a guest list like a wedding guest list before you trim it down. And the guest list is across a wide spectrum of artists, from John Legend on the opening track “All Day Long” to Death Cab for Cutie on the following track “Do You Remember“. He even dug up 70’s Pop humorist Randy Newman! On the plus side, he changes up the styles from track to track… but… it can be a detraction to some due to a perceived lack of flow… personally, I can get with the variety. He’s got a cut for the steppers with “Eternal” (probably my favorite track), a House track (“Ballin Flossin“) featuring Shawn Mendes, and an Electro track (“Found a Good One (Single No More)“) that features SWV and someone called Pretty Vee. Other standouts for me include “Big Fish“, a collabo with Gucci Mane, and “Let’s Go On the Run” featuring Knox Fortune; of the few tracks without any guests, I liked “We Go High“, and “Sun Go Down“.

I think one of the reasons this album has gotten a somewhat polarizing reaction is that its’ theme is his wedding, which he should celebrate. The listener gets an audiobook of the events leading to the big day, the big day itself, and commentary on how you, too, can get to where he is now, a husband or wife. For some (especially single folks), it might be a little too much ‘in your face’… like “I get it, you’re married now and you love your wife and she loves you… now let’s talk about something else.” Some have said his flow is wack on this album, and some have even said it’s corny and elementary, like Chance is gonna turn into Ice Cube and make movies like “Are We There Yet?”, or start writing children’s books or something. I don’t particularly have an issue here, either, except for his occasional deadpan delivery on some tracks. Lastly, some people see he’s doing big things, and are just haters. I watched a review of the album on YouTube from a guy who just happens to be a rapper, and who recently released his own independent Hip hop album; while he was slammin’ Chance, he was promoting his own project, as the better of the two products. I checked his album out, and… No!… not better.

The young man is riding a wave, the likes of which all of us wish we could ride… a recent father, new husband, good music career, doing TV commercials, and as a philanthropist, doing critical work in a community that desperately needs someone to show they care about them…. let him have his moment! Is this his best album? No. Is it the worst thing you’ve heard? Nah there’s much worse out there now. Allow him to celebrate his blessings, and I’m betting the next album will be fiyah… Here is the audio for “Eternal“…


Ash Walker

Aquamarine

This is the third full length album from London-based DJ/producer, musician and now bandleader; his first two albums, 2015’s Augmented 7th, and 2016’s Echo Chamber, were critically acclaimed underground releases.

Walker’s sound can be best described as an atmospheric, dubby Soul/Jazz- as evidenced from the title of the last album, he loves to use elements found in Dub Reggae, particularly the echo and reverb aspects. The results are almost otherworldly at times, and always intoxicating; it recalls the jazzy side of Trip hop. Along for the ride is British singer Laville, whose debut album came out the same day as this one (see separate review); he features on the two singles, “Under the Sun” and “Finishing Touch“, as well as three other tracks. Even he is EQ’d low in the overall sound, and he employs his lower registers more, coming off like a trippy Will Downing. Throughout, Walker employs the fat basslines, especially on tracks like “Come With Us“, which features the brass stylings of Yazz Ahmed, and the appropriately titled “Fat King Smoke“.

For me, this is one of the best albums I’ve heard all year; I can’t stop listening to it. Look for it to grace the upper rungs of my “Best of 2019” list… here is the video for “Finishing Touch“…


Laville

The Wanderer

As I often do these days, I wander around Spotify checking out new stuff, and I was researching the new Brand New Heavies album (which should drop September 6th), and I just happened by the page for Acid Jazz records. This label pretty much ruled most of the early 90’s for me, and I really thought the label was, for the most part, defunct; much to my pleasant surprise, not only are they alive and well (they’ve even resurrected the career of one time Impressions lead singer and 70’s soul balladeer Leroy Hutson), but they’ve released the debut album from North London native Laville. It was also through this discovery that I ran across Ash Walker, with whom he frequently collaborates. He is the first male artist to release an album on Acid Jazz since Jason Kay (aka Jamiroquai).

I haven’t discovered too much about him biographically, but what I do know is that he’s a promising young artist in the art of old school Soul. He’s been mentioned in the same breath as some Soul legends; what I hear is a combination of elements of Will Downing, Donny Hathaway, and Aloe Blacc- not a bad combination at all. The Gospel-influenced single “Easy” echoes Hathaway, while “Thirty One” gives off a funky Will Downing kind of vibe, one that also harkens back to the sound of the label in its’ heyday. The new single “This City” gives off a mid-70’s Disco vibe, while “The Answer” is a smoldering piece of sexy Soul, and is a standout track; for good measure, he can also tackle the classics, as he also throws in a cover of Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love“, which he covers in standard fashion.

This is an auspicious debut, one that makes Laville someone to watch out for; hopefully, he doesn’t change or stray from these musical roots – he’s got something good brewing… Here’s the video for “Thirty One“…


Burna Boy

African Giant

Fresh off of winning a BET Award for Top International Act, one of Nigeria’s top music artists, 28 year old Damini Ogulu aka Burna Boy has released his fourth album, and the first one poised to break him into the American market.

Now, anyone who comes from Nigeria will, at one point in time, face the inevitable comparison to Fela Kuti. Musically, Burna Boy is a kind of hybrid of Jamaican dancehall, Afrobeat, and American Hip-hop, and lyrically, he does dabble in social issues, but he is an everyman who also dabbles in the usual core subjects: sex, love, partying, etc.; Fela he ain’t. If there is one good thing to say about his style, is at least he sounds like he comes from Nigeria; when I listened to Mr. Eazi’s album a while back, it sounded like any other Hip-hop artist, and there wasn’t much of a hint of Africa in it. I’ve read other reviews of this album, and they were surprisingly very favorable, but while I hear some good things, much of it is samey sounding, and his vocals are rather dull to me. The single “Anybody” is rather representative of most of the album; he invites other artists from around the musical spectrum, from fellow Nigerian Zlatan (“Killin Them“), to British singer Jorja Smith (“Gum Body“), Future and his potty mouth show up for “Show & Tell“, and Damien Marley & Angelique Kidjo partner with him on “Different“, which is one of the tracks that stood out for me. Among the others were “Dangote“, named after the Nigerian billionaire, “Destiny“, a song of perseverance, and “Another Story“, which begins with a spoken word lesson on the history of Nigeria and its’ colonial past- this was the most interesting thing on the album to me.

Overall, I think there was too much of African Giant to digest here; there are 19 tracks in all, and some of them could’ve been left off the album – actually, they should’ve considered doing a shorter version, and the ubiquitous “Deluxe” edition for those who can’t get enough of him. A shorter version would’ve made more of an impact for me; but after a while, I just lost interest. It’s not bad, but the title is overly ambitious… Here is the video for “Anybody“…


Blood Orange

Angel’s Pulse

The latest project from Devonte Hynes is actually an addendum to last year’s fine Negro Swan album, one that, if you missed it, explored the subject of life in a black and/or queer world. The material here is basically compiled into a “mixtape” format… still not sure what constitutes a mixtape these days- it used to be a cassette of the hottest dance tunes sequed together – but now… this is a compilation of other material produced during the sessions for the last album, pieced together like a scrapbook into its’ own project.

Hynes takes this style of musical scrapbooking seriously, so you have to be prepared for very abrupt changes in direction from song to song, or even within a song. The 14 tracks in this collection fly by in a mere 32 minutes – only two surpass the three minute mark (one of those by a mere 2 seconds), and it can be frustrating to get into a groove, only for it to suddenly stop and go into something else (see Solange’s latest album). Case in point is the opening track “I Wanna C U“, a nice piece of 70’s styled soft Rock – cuts a nice, mellow groove, only to suddenly stop at just 75 seconds in. The second half of the mixtape offers the majority of the longer tracks (between two and three minutes in length), and is more satisfying – “Tuesday Feeling (Choose to Stay)” and the longest track in the collection “Take It Back” are two of the better selections. Chaz Bundick aka Toro y Moi features on “Dark & Handsome” – he is part of a large cast of contributors for such a short project; others include Tinashe, Kelsey Lu, Justin Skye, and Memphis rappers Project Pat and Gangsta Boo.

This project takes you on an emotional journey, as do all of Hynes’ projects; his voice can be fragile or soothing, whisper soft or wailing. Overall, it’s OK once you get used to its’ flow- you can’t really take it on a track by track basis, but kinda as a whole, hence the ‘mixtape’ designation, I guess … Here is the video for “Benzo“…


The Best Music of 2019 (so far, in my humble opinion)…

We’re halfway through the last year of the the 10’s, and I’m back from a short break that saw me celebrate my birthday, and take my first ever trip outside the country, visiting Mexico for a destination wedding. It appears I didn’t miss that much in the way of new music, but I do have some new stuff to talk about. In addition to revealing my top choices for the year so far, got some singles to tell you about, and I’ll be doing some short takes on new full-length releases- the latest from The Black Keys, a new album from Daniel Caesar, the latest from Yuna, and a new joint from Georgia Anne Muldrow.


The Best So Far…

This year to date, I’ve reviewed 40 new albums across nine posts (not including the ‘Best Of 2018’ post); of those new releases, these are my Top 5 albums so far this year, albums that have remained in constant rotation in my disc player (yes, I STILL buy the CD’s!). These are in no particular order:

Melodiesinfonie – “A Journey to You” I told y’all this one would make the list when I reviewed it. Latest from Zurich, Switzerland-based producer Kevin Wettstein has the cool vibes reminiscent of the best 90’s trip-hop jazz.

Durand Jones & the Soul Indications – “American Love Call” Friends who met at Indiana University start a band, create a vintage Soul sound a la the Delfonics, Impressions, and others, and do it well.

S.P.Y. – “Dubplate Style” Drum ‘n bass is alive and well in the hands of Sao Paulo, Brazil born, London-based producer Carlos Barbosa de Lima, as he takes the genre back to the old school.

Gary Clark Jr. – “This Land” The most fully realized album to date from Blues/rock guitarist shows his versatility, and a little bit of controversy, too!

The Specials – “Encore” The first album since 1981’s More Specials to feature the vocals of original lead single Terry Hall, these aging skanksters haven’t lost a beat.


What’s Coming Up?

The next couple of issues will contain reviews of, among others, Blood Orange, 311, Nate Mercereau, Angie Stone, and Massive Attack.

Among future releases are BET’s top Global act Burna Boy with his second album “African Giant” (7/27). August brings Gospel artist Vashawn Mitchell, who drops his new one “Elements” (8/9), Raphael Saadiq is back with “Jimmy Lee” on 8/23, Common returns with “Let Love“, Sheryl Crow releases “Threads“, and Trisha Yearwood gives us “Every Girl“, all on 8/30. The month of September brings us the latest from my 90’s faves The Brand New Heavies with “TBNH“, and there is a ‘lost’ Miles Davis album originally scheduled for release back around 1984 called “Rubberband” that will finally see the light of day; both of them will drop 9/6. Also due are new albums from The Pixies, with “Beneath the Eyrie” and Lumineers III“, both set to drop on 9/13, and the solo debut from Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard called “Jaime” comes out on 9/20.


From the Singles Bar…

This is an artist I just recently discovered, and he just happens to have a new album that just came out this past week…. look for a review of it in my next post… Ash Walker is a London-based DJ/producer who specializes in a sort of Dubby Soul/Jazz… his latest single features vocals from British vocalist Laville, whose debut album was also released this past week, and is called “Under the Sun“…. love this…

The latest from 25 year old NYC-based Amber Mark is another in a series of fine singles she’s released; we need a full album from her… she’s lived all over the wold, and her music reflects influences from all over as well… she’s talented, and she purdy too!… here’s “What If“…

The latest single from 31 year old Snoh Aalegra is a gorgeous Pop song “Find Someone Like You“… she is of Swedish/Persian ethnicity, Sweden born and raised, but now based in L.A…. and she purdy too!… her first album Feels was critically acclaimed… eagerly awaiting the next one… check the track…


THE HEARD (Reviews)

The Black Keys

“Let’s Rock”

There’s been some talk about the demise of Rock & Roll as a musical art form, as increasingly, popular musics are blending genres together, creating what’s said to be a genre-less musical culture where everything is sounding alike. Five years and some solo endeavors since their last last album, 2014’s Turn Blue, the duo from Akron, OH are back with a vengeance, lettin’ us know that Rock music is still alive.

This is a stripped down affair, with just the duo and their overdubs, augmented only by a couple of backing vocalists. There is plenty of classic Rock riffin’ going on- I hear all of the 70’s classic Rock types here, and Dan Auerbach’s vocals echo classic voices like Steve Miller, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne.

The Black Keys have made it, so they had nothing to lose doing an album that breaks no new ground, but revisits old territory; they’ll only increase their fanbase with this one… I love it…….. here’s the video for “Go“, a great piece of The Knack/The Romantics-era Power Pop…

Yuna

Rouge”

The fourth album from 32 year-old Malaysian- born singer Yunalis Zara’ai is the followup to her fine 2016 release Chapters, which contained her song with Usher “Crush“, and one of my favorite songs of that year, “Best Love“. A devout Muslim, she has recently married and relocated to Los Angeles to pursue and further her musical career.

I love her voice and vocal style- she has that cool, relatively unaffected vocal style that draws comparisons to the likes of Sade and Aaliyah – check out “(Not) the Love of My Life” and “Amy“, which are two of my favorites in this set, and “Teenage Heartbreak” and “Forget About You“. The tracks intended to be singles include “Castaway“, the nice album opener which features Tyler the Creator, and the Bruno Mars-ish “Blank Marquee“, feat. G-Eazy. She includes a track addressing her critics regarding the upholding of her religious tenets (“Does She“), and closes the album with a track for her homeland, “Tiada Akhir“, which is sung in her native language.

There is nothing here that floats my boat like “Best Love” from the last album, but there is a lot to like, nonetheless… here’s the video for “Blank Marquee“…

Daniel Caesar

Case Study 01

One of the main definitions of the word “Entropy”, also the lead track from the new collection from this 24 year old Toronto native is as a scientific term relating to statistical mechanics; another definition is “lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.” That actually is a good way to describe the feel of this, the sophomore album from Caesar, following up his 2017 debut Freudian.

I was expecting something closer to his last album, which was gospel tinged R&B, but this is closer to everything else you hear in today’s so-called Alt Soul- I heard the track “Cyanide” and actually thought it was someone else. It’s more melancholy than I expected, but on the plus side, the malaise has him grasping for his faith. The closest he gets to anything on the last album is his collabo with Brandy “Love Again“; otherwise, he also collaborates with John Mayer (“Superposition“) and Pharrell Williams (“Frontal Lobe Musik“). He shows himself as articulate and literate enough to use scientific metaphors and religious references throughout the album, but then betrays it by lapsing into self-centered P ‘n D talk in other areas.

Daniel also put his foot in his mouth recently when speaking about Black people and racism, saying basically they’re too sensitive; I’ll refrain from commenting on that, preferring to stick to this album review, to which I’ll conclude by paraphrasing AT&T’s current ad campaign for an overall assessment of the album: just OK… here’s the video for “Cyanide“…

Georgia Anne Muldrow

VWETO II

A prolific musical chameleon is one of the best ways to describe Georgia Anne Muldrow. Her last album Overload won my R&B Album of the Year for its’ quirky Neo Soul stylings; she is, however, quite adept in other areas, as well. Over the past decade and the course of nearly 20 albums, she has released those where she displays her Rap skills, albums where she has done a sort of cosmic Jazz, and then there is the funkmeister Georgia, which is where this album falls- this is a collection of funky instrumentals.

A few years ago, The Brand New Heavies released an album called Dunk Your Trunk, which was similarly an album of funky instrumental tracks; their purpose in making that album was reportedly for people who needed a backing track for something they were promoting – business, news segment, background music, etc…. my blogging buddy daddydforreal and I have a dormant podcast which has utilized one of the tracks as our opening theme music… not sure if that is the intention with this album, but it could certainly serve that purpose. Over the course of 16 tracks , she produces one mildly to very funky track after another, for an hours’ worth of music; to my ears, nothing particularly stood out, but some tracks worked better than others- it’s up to you and your personal taste to decide which ones- one of my favorites is “Das Funk“, which is the audio track posted with this review.

This will work best as funky background or elevator music; you may subconsciously find yourself tapping your feet or nodding your head while studying or cleaning up when this is playing… here is “Das Funk“…

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“….