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 into… “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“…

You’ve Got to Hear These Tunes!

Now Hear This! Issue #15


This time around, I review a quartet of new albums that have come across my desk and piqued my interest: the new Gary Clark Jr. album, a new mixtape from Kehlani, the comeback album from Chaka Khan, and a collaborative project from Rhiannon Giddens called Our Native Daughters about which I am most excited.


RANDOM NOTES

So the GRAMMY Awards was a pretty big bore, and none of my picks won anything. This was the year of #GrammysSoGirly, and the ladies dominated; this article is kinda in that vein, as three of the four artists here are female. I went off about Kacey Musgraves winning for Top Album- I had never heard of her… but I went to Spotify later and listened to her album, and while I still don’t agree about it being Album of the Year, it is actually a pretty good album. To be honest, there were several of the major categories where I couldn’t pick a winner from any of the nominees, that’s how bad it was for me. The way I see it, the GRAMMY Awards is like All Star games in the four major sports- more popularity contests than awards based on an artist’s actual talent or song/album merit… and that’s too bad…

I thought about trying to publish this article to close out Black History Month; then I rethought it, saying Black History is 365 days a year, not just in February, so it doesn’t matter if it’s published after the month is over- it’ll still be relevant. I’ve also come to think of the month as one that’s mainly for the benefit of White people who care to learn about the rich history of African Americans in this country; regrettably, many Blacks don’t know this history, either, beyond Martin Luther King, Jr., so I suppose it’s useful for us, too…


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Our Native Daughters

Songs of Our Native Daughters

This is a project brought to fruition by Folk artist and Greensboro, NC native Rhiannon Giddens, whose mission is to retell the stories of the Black experience as originally told through those who lived it during the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, and also to reclaim the heritage of the string band tradition (especially the banjo) as part of Black history and culture through song itself. One of the elements of the stories being retold here involve the tradition of minstrelsy… this comes at a time when “blackface” has been prominent in recent news. Some of the stories have never been told, or have been altered or whitewashed. Her last album, 2017’s Freedom Highway, was a collection of songs whose lyrics were derived from slave narratives, and was one of my Best of ’17 releases.

Joining her in this project are Leyla McCalla, whose new album I reviewed in my last article; Allison Russell, who is part of the Folk outfit Birds of Chicago; rising Folk singer Amethyst Kiah, whose style can recall elements of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Tracy Chapman, and Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes. This Black woman Folk supergroup (who, in my mind, is missing only Valerie June from this assemblage) came together to record these sessions in an old house in the Lafayette, LA area, with production overseen by Rhiannon’s producer Dirk Powell.

The 13 songs presented here run the gamut of sources, from scraps of melody or dialogue recalled from memory, and sung by slaves, old Blues singers, to Haitian Folk, modern adaptations of other melodies or lyrics, to a wonderful cover of Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver“. The banjo is the focal instrument throughout the tracks, as it is an instrument whose origins date back to 18th century West Africa, and then more recently to Jamaica. The ladies are all multi-instrumentalists: Rhiannon is also a fiddler, McCalla a cellist, and Russell a clarinetist, among other instruments. As Blacks left the oppressive South at the beginning of the 20th Century and started heading north, they left behind all associations with it, including the banjo, which has since been co-opted by White artists, and they’ve made it their instrument, and Folk and Bluegrass largely genres preformed by them. So… as such.. this may prove to come as difficult listening for some, especially in terms of lyrical content, as these songs can vividly recall some harrowing experiences. Check out the following video about the making of perhaps the most intense song, “Mama’s Cryin’ Long“…

Each of the ladies bring something unique to the table here, and result of all of their influences create a seemless track list. Kiah opens the set with “Black Myself“, a song about intraracial discrimination, or more colloquially, the light vs dark skin argument that persists to this day, and “Polly Ann’s Hammer“, about one woman’s strength to endure her personal hardships in grueling servitude. Russell gives us “Quasheba, Quasheba“, a slave ancestor of hers, as she details the story of her life, from her journey on the trans-Atlantic ride, and throughout her life until her passing, and “You’re Not Alone“, which was inspired by her own tales of childhood abuse at the hands of her White father, and with deference to her five year old daughter. Giddens gives us a glimpse into what a slave may have been thinking during the period where minstrel shows flourished, and education of slaves was discouraged with “Better Git Yer Learnin’” and a haunting melody in “Barbados“. McCalla gives us “I Knew I Could Fly“, about a woman who gave up her dreams of playing music for family, at the behest of her husband, only to mine her craft after his death, as well as a Haitian Folk tune “Lavi Difisil“.

The packaging for this disc includes detailed notes on the inspirations that resulted in the songs in this project, as well as the lyrics for all songs and the personnel configurations; it is a good argument against the current streaming culture that exists in music buying today- you don’t get this kind of annotation on Apple Music or Spotify. Go BUY the physical CD! This project deserves that, and all the critical acclaim that will rightfully come its’ way. I predict this will make not only my 2019 Best Of… list at the beginning of next year, but many other’s lists as well… check out the audio for “Black Myself“…

Kehlani

While We Wait

The latest release from 23 year old Oakland native is considered a mixtape, a taster for what’s to come, as she’s preparing her sophomore album for release later this year… and also preparing to deliver her first child. Maybe I don’t know what makes this a mixtape- I always thought of that term in a literal sense, growing up on actual mixtapes (cassettes) from DJ’s back in the day; this is a millennial definition of the word, for seemingly no good reason. It’s a nine track set clocking in around 31 minutes, more than all five of the albums Kanye produced last year (his own, Nas, Pusha T, and the others), and Chaka Khan’s new album (see next review).

We find Kehlani talking about love in all its’ stages, from the acknowledgement of desire for someone (“Feels“) to the blossoming of a new relationship (“Butterfly“). Musiq Soulchild joins her on the set opener “Footsteps“, which describes a breakup of two people who can’t quite let each other go; she also covers the object of her desire being comfortable with her plainness on the very TLC-ish “Morning Glory“- this one even features a 1993 beat! 6LACK joins her on “RPG“, a track about inattentive lovers, Ty Dolla $ign assists her on a song of lover betrayal (“Nights Like This“), and Dom Kennedy spits a verse on “Nunya“, about jealous exes that can’t let go. Then there is the track about getting too serious with the side piece (“Too Deep“), and finally, the set closer “Love Language” discusses a communication gap between lovers that don’t actually speak the same language.

This is a nice little project to hold us until the next full-length album drops. It’s an interesting set from an interesting young woman; it feels rather personal, as her songs indicate lovers from both sexes- once the love interest of NBA star Kyrie Irving, she describes herself as “queer”. She is genetically exotic, claiming five different ethnic groups as part of her makeup, an offspring of two drug addicts, and she has an affinity for tattoos, which I personally find to be in gross excess on her (especially those on her face)… but, to each his/her own. Musically, though, I can get with this, despite the number of features here (y’all know I don’t go for those in abundance), and the subject matter focusing a good bit on P ‘n D- at least it isn’t presented in an obscene manner… here is the video for “Nunya“…

Chaka Khan

Hello Happiness

For many artists, maintaining relevance is important; for an R&B legend that has now released music in five decades, it would seem to be of less importance, than say, Fantasia or somebody. But here she is, the original Queen of Funk, now 65 years of age, returning with her first album of new material in 12 years. It’s produced by a British guy who goes by the name Switch, who has been a major presence in the current UK dance scene; Chaka’s trying to keep up in her advancing years.

There is a feel with this album that is unlike any Chaka Khan album preceding it, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first; then it came to me: the very thing that Chaka championed, working with a current, hot producer, is the very thing that lets her down throughout this album. For parts of it, she sounds like a guest, or even a sample… on her own album. Current production values don’t include much live instrumentation or complex, melodic song structures, or even high end- everything seems compressed in the mid-range, and it also sounds like Chaka’s voice is even being manipulated electronically. In short, Chaka doesn’t get much of a chance to let loose and use that soaring voice. The two lead singles from the album, the Jamiroquai-ish title track and “Like Sugar“, which uses a sample recently used by the group Jungle, are arguably the two best tracks here. Speaking of tracks, there are only seven tracks… really only six- the closing track “Ladylike“, which is the most Chaka-like song in this set, is a redux of the earlier track “Like a Lady“, a track that has an 80’s feel, perhaps trying to recapture the magic of “I Feel for You“. The album is shockingly brief, clocking in at just 27 minutes, so it feels more like an appetizer than a full meal.

Chaka is a legendary talent, who, in my opinion, needed producers of a caliber similar to her personal brand cache – starting with, perhaps, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, who produced her last album, 2007’s Funk This; Babyface or Quincy would’ve also gotten more out of her while enveloping her in more satisfying musical surroundings. This album is an expose for the producer, as he uses all of his studio tricks and gimmicks to tremendously over-produce this album. It’s not all bad, just not all good; she deserves more than this puts out… here are the videos for “Hello Happiness“, where she makes a cameo, and “Like Sugar“, where she is nowhere to be seen…

Gary Clark Jr.

This Land

The third studio album from 34 year old Austin, TX native Clark is gonna put him in a position recently occupied by Lenny Kravitz, and prior to him, by Ben Harper. That position? Black Rock or Folk artists whose music takes a turn towards the political realm, to the chagrin of a mostly white fanbase, some of whom will turn on him because of his opinions. The usual array of comments will surface: “just play music and leave politics out of it”; “another piece of left-wing race-baiting”. They’ll suddenly start to question his accomplished guitar playing, which they thought was fantastic, but now it’ll become “he’s only an average guitar player”, and the music will become less satisfying. All because the man spoke his truth, they’ll knock him off the pedestal they placed him on, and he’ll be reduced to just another complaining Black man claiming victimization. What his sudden detractors won’t realize is that even though he has money and a degree of fame, he still is the same as me, in the eyes of many people. They’ll never take a step in his shoes, and will never know what it’s like to go through life as someone who looks like him. But they’ll stop buying his records because he chose to inform his art with his life.

And that’s a damn shame. As I will now ‘stick to the music’, if these fair weather fans don’t listen to the entire project, they’ll miss much of what they like from Clark. Essentially, once you get past the first two tracks (which were the lead tracks that tightened jaws), of the remaining 15 tracks, you’ve got a really good soulful, rockin’ Blues album. When I first saw the title of the album, I thought he was covering the John Lee Hooker classic; but from the opening line, I knew this was something altogether different… “”Now that I got the money / Fifty acres and a model A / Right in the middle of Trump country / I told you, “There goes a neighborhood” / Now Mister Williams ain’t so funny / I see you looking out your window / Can’t wait to call the police on me …” Then he continues with this lyric… “Nigga run, nigga run / Go back where you come from (x2) / We don’t want, we don’t want your kind / We think you’s a dumb bum / Fuck you, I’m America’s son / This is where I come from / This land is mine…” Not exactly a sing-along track (another complaint I’ve heard). Here’s the video…

The following track “What About Us” talks of inclusion for all, and gives us this refrain… “Well, there goes the neighborhood, one way or another / You can call it what you want / But the young blood’s taking over / Don’t get too comfortable, just plan on moving over / ‘Cause things gon’ stay the same /It’s the same thing over and over / What about us?…” Here’s the video…

You can thank Gary’s neighbor, Mr. Williams and his bigotry for these songs. Now… once you get past those two, there is actually a lot of variety on the album. You get a rockin’ Blues from the next two tracks (“I Got My Eyes On You (Locked & Loaded)” and “I Walk Alone“, a reggae-influenced track (“Feelin’ Like Million“), a Punk-y track (“Gotta Get Into Something“), a track called “Feed the Babies” that would make Curtis Mayfield smile, and then perhaps his Purple Rain moment, “Pearl Cadillac“, a homage to his mother. Then there’s some good bluesy Pop with “When I’m Gone“, the soulful “The Guitar Man” and “Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow“, and finally, some straight-ahead Blues with “The Governor” and “Dirty Dishes Blues“.

As I’ve been known to say, no-one wants to hear your opinion, unless they happen to agree with it, so for those people who will walk away from GCJ based on those first two tracks, you will be replaced by many others who appreciate him taking a stand and speaking up for himself. This is Gary’s most versatile and satisfying (to me) album to date; do yourself a favor and check it out.

The First Musical Fruits of 2019

Now Hear This! Issue #14

The first month of a new year is usually pretty slow for new music releases; however, this year, I’ve already found a number of new projects worth checking out.

Over the past year, I tried reviewing music that was considered more mainstream; my history with NHT! (which goes back to a company newsletter in the 90’s) has always been to explore and expose new music from the outer fringes of the mainstream, or outside of it altogether. By doing so, I was attempting to increase interest and readership (is that a word??) in the blog; as that hasn’t happened to my expectations, I’ve decided to step back out into left field somewhat, and back to unknowns, unappreciated, and under-appreciated artists, with just an occasional look inside that sphere of mainstream music.

Apparently, I’m already there, as my Best Of 2018 list produced only three GRAMMY nominations – two for the Arctic Monkeys (Best Rock Performance for “Four Out of Five”, and Best Rock/Alternative album for “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino”), and one for Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite (Best Traditional Blues album for “No Mercy In This Land”). I had 28 last year; about a half-dozen albums I positively reviewed that didn’t make the ‘Best Of… ‘ list are up for nominations, though, so at least there is some redemption for me in that area. To see the complete list of nominations, click the following link:

https://www.grammy.com/grammys/news/2019-grammy-awards-complete-nominations-list

The GRAMMY Awards will be broadcast this coming Sunday… so, read on to see what I thought about my first musical harvest of this year…


THE HEARD (Reviews)

Leyla McCalla “The Capitalist Blues”

This is the third album from first generation Haitian-American cellist/guitarist/banjoist singer/songwriter who was born in New York, raised in New Jersey and Ghana, and currently based in New Orleans. She was a member of the Black old-timey Folk group Carolina Chocolate Drops, which also featured Rhiannon Giddens, before embarking on her solo career. Her debut release, 2014’s Vari-Colored Songs were mainly tone poems based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, and 2016’s A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey explored the Folk music of her ancestral homeland.

The Capitalist Blues is very much informed by both the current social/political climate of the country (as she sees it) and her current surroundings, as she employed, in addition to her trio, a who’s who of New Orleans-based musicians, as well as a Haitian group. As with every release, there are also Haitian Folk tunes, as she is deeply involved in studying the traditional music from the island. The title track is a New Orleans-style jazz piece with a statement on what it takes to make it in this society… ”
You keep telling me / To climb this ladder / I’ve got to pay my dues / But as I rise / The stakes get higher / I’ve got the capitalist blues / And if I give everything / I won’t have much more to lose“. It’s followed by a cover of Calypso legend The Growling Tiger’s “Money Is King“, where it’s determined that if you’re poor, a dog’s life is better than yours. “Heavy As Lead” is a slow, simmering bluesy Soul that touches on the water contamination issue with which many communities live; “Aleppo” is a noisy indie rock track that speaks on the Syrian war crisis. On the lighter side, “Me and My Baby” is playful old-timey Southern Soul, while “Oh My Love” is straight-up Zydeco. Three are three nice Haitian folk tunes included here, as well; they’re sung in the native Haitian Creole.

Leyla has created a conscious, musically varied project that excels in all areas, and makes her an artist to watch out for (and not to objectify her, but she purdy too). If I had one minor criticism here, it’s that she laid down her cello for this album. She is an accomplished cellist, having studied at NYU, and she used it to great effect on her first two albums, but it’s nowhere to be found here. Still, this is a wonderful project you should check out… also check her out later this month on a project she collaborated on with Giddens, Allison Russell (from Birds of Chicago), and rising talent Amethyst Kiah on a project called Our Native Daughters…. for now, enjoy the video to “Money Is King“…

The Specials “Encore

It was the first wave of Ska revivalism that is most directly responsible for my head first dive into Jamaican music styles, and this group helped lead that charge, by way of their punky ska self-titled 1979 debut album, along with The Selecter, Madness, The English Beat, and Bad Manners, among others- they formed the Two Tone family of artists. The original group released just one more album after that auspicious debut, before splintering off – lead singer Terry Hall, Neville Staples and Lynval Golding went on to form Fun Boy Three, which also eventually begat Bananarama; Hall later went on to form The Colourfield . The Specials, in various member configurations, have carried on through the years, but this release is most notable for witnessing the return of Hall back into the fold to record with them for the first time in 38 years. The current lineup consists of just three original members: Hall, Golding, and bassist Horace Panter; most notably absent are Staples, who was mostly a dancer and hype man, and keyboardist Jerry Dammers, arguably the architect of the original group’s sound.

The sound of the album, for the most part, picks up where 1980’s More Specials left off- at the time, that album had largely eschewed the Ska sound in favor of a Rock Steady (the Jamaican style between Ska and Reggae) meets Lounge, which was coming into vogue at the time. It starts, however, with a pair of curveballs – “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” is like 80’s James Brown funk, a cover song of Eddy Grant’s group The Equals about the world becoming more genetically multi-cultural, and “B.L.M“., another straight-ahead funk track, a spoken word song in which Golding traces his history from Jamaica to England and then America, and the racism he’s encountered at every turn. Finally, we get to a Specials-sounding track, the single “Vote for Me“, a track about the people in power all over the world, who they proclaim all “bore them to tears – it will remind you of “Ghost Town“, their last hit single from 1981 with the original lineup. Elsewhere, they cover themselves (in a sense), doing a remake of Fun Boy Three’s “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)” and they cover for a second time “Blam Blam Fever“, a 1967 song from a group called The Valentines, which discusses gun culture. They adapted the track “10 Commandments” from the original Prince Buster track to a kind of dubby #metoo manifesto, using the riddim most often identified with Dawn Penn’s “No No No (You Don’t Love Me)“, with spoken word from Saffiyah Khan, a Birmingham , UK activist who was famously photographed in a standoff against the English Defence League, which is said to be an anti-Islamic far-right outfit. They close the album with “We Sell Hope“, which is in contrast to the bleak outlooks portrayed throughout the album – it basically infers “we can make it better if only we try”.

It is a welcome return for these guys, as the world is very much as they left it- if anything, it’s worse now, making their outlook and viewpoints to be as relevant now as they were back when they started, only now from a more world weary view, due to life experience. The deluxe version of this album includes a second disc of the group performing their old hits live. There is no official video for a track yet, but check out the audio for “Vote for Me“…

James Blake “Assume Form

If I’m not mistaken, I would say that Blake sounds like someone in love… and after reading some press articles in advance of the release of this, his fourth album, I learned I wasn’t mistaken, he is in love. That is the driving force behind this album bringing him out of the deep emotional abyss his first three albums found him in. So he’s in a three-year relationship with British actress Jameela Jamil (can’t say I blame him, she purdy)… makes me wonder why he was seemingly so distraught on his 2016 album The Colour in Anything. I purchased Overgrown, his 2013 sophomore album, based off the track “Retrograde” being in heavy rotation on Sirius xm Chill, and at the time, I kinda compared him to early 80’s Gary Numan because of the icyness, the often disjointed, and occasionally even disorienting aspects of his music – frankly, I’ve been wondering how he’s garnered the attention of the likes of Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, and others; the industry has tried to pass him off as some sort of abstract R&B artist… but when I think of R&B, the term ‘warmth’ comes to mind – his music has not conveyed warmth… quite the opposite, actually.

But not this album… from the opening, title track, Blake expresses a desire to open himself up to receive love; “Mile High” features Travis Scott and production work from hot Trap producer Metro Boomin’, and while it talks of clubbin’, I think it’s a euphemism for his euphoria of being in a relationship. Tracks like “Tell Them“, “Power On“, and “Don’t Miss It” seem to have him in a reflective mode back to the way it was before this relationship brought him out, and how he had to change his modus operandi, while “Into the Red“, “Barefoot in the Park“, and especially “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” are celebratory love songs about her. Musically, it’s his most accessible album to date, although he hasn’t necessarily strayed from his formula. But even with all that being the current situation, I’m not sure that Blake is completely comfortable with this thing called love… “Are You In Love?” talks of that nervous uncertainty when you’re not sure of the other person’s feeling towards you – especially when you have those feelings towards them; “Where’s the Catch?“, which features Andre 3000, seems to question his good fortune, as if his situation is too good to be true.

With this album, Blake has taken a step forward… I usually don’t advocate any artist to dull their edge, but in this case, it seems to have made a change for the better, as I believe he’ll also get to celebrate what is his best album to date. Jameela, we thank you… check out the video for “Mile High“…

Toro y Moi “Outer Peace

For his sixth album, Columbia, SC native Chaz Bundick, or as he wants to be known these days, Chaz Bear, changes it up a little. Currently based in the Bay Area of California, his 2017 album Boo Boo was one of my Best of 2017 picks, so he kinda set a standard in my mind for the quality of each successive record. Now that album had a very 80’s vibe to it, and was described as a ‘break-up’ album, so it was sometimes funky, but also had moments of melancholy.

For Outer Peace, he described it to Apple Music as ‘a motivational record, a you can do it because all you do is work’ album. More than half of the albums 10 tracks are four-on-the-floor dance tracks, the remainder being more atmospheric tracks.

Overall, I like this tight collection of tunes; every track ends kind of abruptly and goes straight into the next, and you’re in and out of this one in a half-hour flat. I will admit I still like the last album better, though… check out the video for “Freelance“…

Julian Marley “As I Am

This is the fourth album from Marley son, and his first since he dropped Awake some 10 years ago. He was born in London, and raised by his mother Lucy Pounder; he is part of the Marley offspring’s Ghetto Youths International production company.

For me, this album tries too hard to be something for everyone, and it doesn’t do a very good job. Over its’ 17 tracks, I found less than half of them to be keepers; it starts well, with the first three tracks, including the single “Hey Jack“, and it ends well, with perhaps the best three tracks on the album… my favorites “Can’t Cool the Fire“, “War Zone”, and the dub instrumental “I Am the Sound” featuring the son of another reggae legend, Addis Pablo, the offspring of the melodica master Augustus Pablo. In between, two, maybe three tracks would’ve made the cut with me, otherwise, tracks like “Baby Lotion” and “Biology” have nice grooves but insipid lyrics aimed at the P ‘n D crowd; he enlists Shaggy for the overly busy “Too Hot to Dance“, Beenie Man pops in for an awful cover of “What’s New Pussycat“, and Spragga Benz guests on “Panic Mind State“, which was only somewhat better.

I was hoping for so much more from this one, but it failed to deliver the goods. It’s almost blasphemous to pan a release by anyone named Marley, but this one earns the distinction of being my least favorite album I’ve heard from one of the kids… check out the video for “Hey Jack“…