Just for the Record: The Politics of the Politics in Music

Now Hear This! #10  July/August 2018

“I wanna go there, still I don’t go there… everybody says ‘say something’…. I don’t wanna get, caught up in the middle of it…” (Justin Timberlake/Chris Stapleton)

In my recent article “The Music & the Madness”, I made a couple of comments that implicitly referenced my thoughts on our current President; one of my readers, a lifelong friend and a conservative Republican, took offense with the comments.  I encourage feedback on my articles, so I was welcoming of what she had to say;  she asked me “why did you have to bring politics into a music column, why not just keep it about the music?

The question took me right back to a quote that opened up an earlier article on Now Hear This!-  the quote came from me, and said “no one wants to hear your opinion, unless they agree with it…”  Now, I love my friend like a sister, although we aren’t (for the most part) politically aligned, but I was kind of amused by the question she asked, for I’ve read countless short reviews from listeners of albums by their favorite artists that became platforms for political commentary.  And in every case where there was disagreement with the artist’s stance, it was always “just stick to making music” or some other comment like that.

Let’s face it: we live in politically charged times, and one place where social politics have always gained a foothold is through music- you cannot escape it, especially today.  This is true in most every genre, except for one… but we’ll get into that in a bit…

Somehow, throughout all my trips to the Charleston, SC area over the past 16 years, I had managed to never been aware of the presence of Monster Music & Movies.  I realized why, though: all of my previous visits there were mainly to North Charleston, or on the peninsula, the main tourist trap; I rarely, if ever, ventured across the Ashley River to the area where most Charlestonians actually live (or can afford to live). img_2797 This is a music superstore, located in a strip mall across from a major shopping mall, with square footage rivaling a medium size grocery store.  I had to make two trips there to get to survey all the music- I never got to all the DVD’s and Blurays that consumed an entire wall.  The sell all the formats: new and used CD’s, vinyl, they had some cassettes, even a few 8-track tapes; they also have accessories, like record needles, sleeves and inserts for 7-inch and 12-inch vinyl, and more.  They have a large budget section (including a whole section of $1.99 Reggae CD’s!), and a pretty good selection of new music at competitive prices. I can now say that I’ve been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt (I actually did buy the T-shirt, for $7.99).  And from this point forward, EVERY trip to the Charleston area must include a stop at this store.  SUPPORT YOUR INDEPENDENT MUSIC RETAILER!

So… back to my earlier discussion.  Firstly, let me tell you a little about me… just for the record… I’m what I consider to be politically moderate at this point in my life.  At one point in my late teens/early 20’s, I was anarchic, far left leaning, considered Socialism to be a plausible solution, and atheist; fast forward 35 years or so, and the needle has moved considerably, closer to the center than it has ever been.  I’m still left leaning, but I’m conservative on some topics, and liberal on others – in some instances, I’m both within the same topic (like abortion – I’m pro-life for myself, pro-choice for everyone else).  I’m of the opinion that the two dominant political parties in America are both full of shiggedy, especially where it pertains to people of color.  Finally, I’m a Christian who attends church weekly via physical or virtual means.

Popular music has always been driven by what people go through in their lives, so it always speaks from a social perspective.  The political perspective was probably birthed around the time of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, and has continued to be a topic ever since then.  Today, in a society that’s more divided than ever, at a time when our togetherness, understanding, and tolerance with and of others not like us isn’t what we thought it was, it is more pervasive than ever.  The opening quote in this article is what this discourse is all about.  Most genres, be it Blues, Jazz, R&B, HipHop, or Rock, speak on the events of current times.  Conspicuously absent in this group is Country music.

There was an article about this very topic in the weekly Free Times newspaper here in Columbia, SC several months back; to read the article, click the following link:

https://www.free-times.com/news/cover-story/walk-the-line-navigating-politics-in-today-s-country-music/article_ec072a0e-da0b-11e7-8e91-2f1d2d27d99c.html

It seems as if Country artists go out of their way to NOT include politics in their music.  Why is that?  I’m fairly sure of the answer, but before I delve into that, this reminds me of a parallel with other local events that happened around the time I first came to Columbia in late 1999.  There was the whole Confederate flag controversy here, but then there was a barbecue restaurant magnate who was in the news about his views on race.  The owner of several local restaurants, he informed us that there was biblical justification for the enslavement of Black people, and that the White man is the best friend the Black man has ever had.  His business suffered tremendously for a while, but it has ultimately sustained.  He has since passed away, and his children run the business today; when they were asked about their father’s views and whether or not they share those views, they didn’t denounce them- in fact, they completely sidestepped the issue, and wanted to stick to talking about the barbecue.

Here’s my take: The demographic that calls Country their favorite music of choice is  mostly White, Conservative, and Republican, and within that demographic are many whose views probably wouldn’t be acceptable to a larger majority of Americans or considered ‘politically correct’ (to be fair, the same could be said of HipHop, but those artists and its’ listening audience wear their thoughts and emotions on their sleeves).  The artists that may share their views would rather not seem out of step, or racist, fascist, homophobic, or sexist; they prefer to stick to topics about big wheel trucks, drinking, and homespun tales of domestic life and love.  Conversely, those brave enough to stick their necks out and express views not aligned with much of their audience can find themselves facing severe backlash.  Examples of that include Drive-by Truckers, whose last album American Band was very sympathetic to African American causes, and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s last album The Nashville Sound, which again expressed empathetic sentiments to the African American experience.  Each caught some degree of flack from their fanbase for the songs, being called closet liberals- the Truckers in particular, heard it loud and clear from many in their fanbase that they didn’t approve- many jumped off the back of the truck!  Even legendary Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd are distancing themselves from the Confederate flag imagery that has been part of their identity their whole career, to the chagrin of some of their fanbase.

I’ve taken Black Country superstar Darius Rucker to task more than once for not speaking up- especially considering he comes from a place that witnessed one of the worst mass shootings in recent history- the Charleston church shootings at the hands of Dylann Roof-  but as with the others, his career is more important than risking it by infusing the music with political commentary, since you will probably piss off someone no matter what you say.

There is another line in the Timberlake/Stapleton collabo that goes “sometimes the greatest way to say something, is to say nothing at all”…. I love the song, BTW, but it isn’t lost on me that the writers of it are White men… you could just about guarantee a Black artist wouldn’t write this song (well, maybe Kanye would), because they come from a side (whether or not espouse those views) where many view that coming out in support of other groups compromises “our way of life”, while Black artists are more likely to state what’s wrong, and what’s needed to make it right.  But that lyric basically sums up the mindset of most Country artists… and probably others in other genres, as well…  and that can be a justifiable or a dangerous approach, depending upon the view.

Either way, I can understand… but sometimes, I still wish they would say something

R  E  V  I  E  W  S

Because of the length of the previous discourse, I will try to provide a degree of brevity to this month’s reviews.  Here we go…

Kamasi Washington “Heaven & Earth”

Kamasi Washington Heaven and Earth

Brevity is not the modus operandi of ambitious Jazz tenor saxophonist Washington, whose debut album, 2015’s The Epic was a three hour plus triple-disc set; he released a mini epic called The Harmony of Difference last year, containing just 6 tracks, at a total length of about a half hour.  This full-length sophomore effort is a double-disc set clocking in at just over 2 1/2 hours across 16 tracks; vinyl copies include a bonus disc called The Choice (available for download and streaming elsewhere), which pushes the overall length back over three hours.  Overall, it’s a more consistent effort, as he edited himself enough to leave out weaker tracks, something he didn’t do on his debut.  He is a student of Coltrane, but the music is also informed by current events and styles, as well.  He likes to employ strings and what I call a celestial choir in the music to further enhance the sound.  He is the most exciting saxophonist to hit the scene since Joshua Redman some 20 plus years ago.  Definitely recommended… just set aside some time to listen… check out the video for “Street Fighter Mas“…

Victory “The Broken Instrument”

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The debut from 23 year old Detroit born, NYC based singer/guitarist Victory Boyd is a collection of songs she says are an attempt to spread the love of Jesus to a secular audience without being preachy.  Indeed, you wouldn’t detect that as a mission, but this preacher’s daughter sings uplifting and inspirational tunes with the maturity of someone much older; then again, she is part of a singing family- you can find videos of them on Youtube singing Christmas carols in Central Park.  She has drawn comparisons to the likes of Tracy Chapman and Nina Simone, among others, and the buzz around her is completely justified. Radio his beginning to pick up on the lead single “Open Your Eyes“, which recalls the Des’ree track “You Gotta Be“.   She will make your day… check out the video for the single…

Swing Out Sister “Almost Persuaded”

swingoutsister-almostpersuaded

The 10th album from this British duo is their first one of all new material since their 2009 album A Beautiful Mess, and is the culmination of a fan pledge-funded project called “A Movable Feast” that they began recording about four years ago.   It was originally released last fall to those who helped fund the project, and is just now getting a general release.  They never disappoint in their sound, which has always been heavily influenced by 60’s Easy Listening, particularly the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David; their sophisticated and subdued jazz pop stylings will put you in a mellow mood, and vocalist Corinne Drewery’s dreamy voice is oh so soothing.  Check out the video for “Which Wrong Is Right”

Kamaal Williams “The Return”

kamaalwilliams-thereturn

London based keyboardist born Henry Wu brings forth his second album, his first under his new Muslim name; he is of British and Taiwanese ancestry, and converted to Islam a few years ago.  His sound is best described as a nod to 70’s Jazz fusion from the likes of Herbie Hancock, combined with the flavor that style influenced, the 90’s Acid Jazz scene, particularly the music of groups like Incognito (in particular, the keyboardist for that group, Matt Cooper, did similar work under the moniker Outside).  Check out the video for “Salaam“, which is edited in this version, as it later breaks out into an almost drum ‘n bass vamp…

The Internet “Hive Mind”

theinternet-hivemind

Well look what we have here: an R&B GROUP!  The Internet is an amalgam of five individuals formerly involved with the Odd Future hip-hop collective, who’ve also dabbled in their own solo projects.  As a group, their fourth album solidifies them as an outfit to watch for, as they come together with a sound that is stripped down, lo-fi funky, smooth and silky, and yes, devoid of the Trap. Lead vocalist Syd has a voice reminiscent of Aaliyah or Janet, light and airy. Put this on and just zone out for close to an hour, let this one permeate your soul.  This one is an R&B album of the year candidate… check out the video for “Roll (Burbank Funk)“, a perfect summertime jam, and a great track for the skaters…

Gorillaz “The Now Now”

Gorillaz_-_The_Now_Now

After last year’s overly ambitious but ultimately underwhelming Humanz album, Gorillaz returns with a more streamlined, less guest-filled effort.  The only features here are from George Benson, who provides guitar on the single “Humility”, and Jamie Principle and Snoop Dogg on “Hollywood”.  This is, for the most part, a groove-oriented disc that just proves that sometimes, keeping it simple is better.  Here is the video for “Humility”

Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids “An Angel Fell”

idrisackamoor-AnAngelFell

The newest release from 67 year old Chicago native and cosmic space jazz saxophonist Ackamoor is his latest adventure in what he calls exploring the outer limits of jazz.  The influences of Sun Ra are abundant here, but he also mixes elements from around the African diaspora, from the Caribbean to South America and the African continent.  It may take a couple of listens before this one can be fully appreciated, but it is well worth the effort and repeated listens… no video is available for any of the tracks, but you can enjoy the audio to “Message to My People”…

You Heard All the New G.O.O.D. Music?

Now Hear This!   Special Issue #2

“I love myself way more than I love you.”  (Kanye West, 2018)

This issue reviews the five projects involving our wayward, musical genius free thinker Kanye West and his G.O.O.D. Music label: his own new album, as well as the projects from Pusha T, Teyana Taylor, KIDS SEE GHOSTS, and Nas.

The music industry has done kind of a 180 degree turn in how albums are being produced lately.  Historically, an album contained, on average, 4 to 6 tracks per sides, with an average length of about 3-4 minutes per song; the CD age, with room on a disc that allowed artists to cram close to 80 minutes worth of music on a single disc, often created albums with bloated excesses of material, diminishing the overall quality of a  project.  Now, as CD’s are being overshadowed by digital downloading and music streaming, we’ve seen the industry reverse course, and now we’re seeing shorter, more concise albums of 10 tracks, and overall lengths shrinking into the 30-35 minute range again.

The five releases being reviewed here are being marketed as full albums, but would’ve been known as EP’s or mini-albums just a few short years ago; as a matter of fact, with each of them containing just 7 tracks and an average total length of about 23-24 minutes, three of the four could fit onto one CD… but, each of them are distinctive in their own way.

Soooo, let’s get into those distinctions…


Pusha T “DAYTONA”

pusha-t-daytona-artwork

The third solo album from 41 year old Terrence Thornton aka Pusha T is largely a celebration of his lifestyle in the drug game.  Of course, this isn’t my preferred choice of occupation (heck, neither is my current occupation), so who am I to judge?

He’s speaking directly to those in the game with him, those who wish they were as successful as him, and to those with whom he’s at odds (more on that in a moment).  He proclaims in the opening headnodda “If You Know You Know“… “This thing of ours, oh, this thing of ours / A fraternity of drug dealers ringin’ off / I just happen to be alumni…” Much of his lyrical wordplay, frankly, will fly over the heads of many of us, but his core audience will get it.  And that’s part of what makes this album so intriguing, as you want to be part of that core, if only to understand.   The album’s title is a reference to his favorite watch, the Rolex Daytona –  as he says, he has the ‘luxury of time’.  On “The Games We Play“, he further describes life in the game, and all the excesses the money brings it… “Ain’t no stoppin’ this champagne from poppin’ / The draws from droppin’, the laws from watchin’ / With Ye back choppin’, the cars and the women come with options /
Caviar facials remove the toxins / This ain’t for the conscious, this is for the mud-made monsters…”  Rick Ross adds his $20 worth on “Hard Piano“,  and Kanye drops in on “What Would Meek Do?”; finally, on “Infrared“, he continues his beefs with Lil’ Wayne… “Salute Ross ’cause the message was pure / He see what I see when you see Wayne on tour / Flash without the fire / Another multi-platinum rapper trapped and can’t retire / Niggas get exposed, I see the cracks and I’m the liar?…”; and Drake… “How could you ever right these wrongs / When you don’t even write your songs? / But let us all play along / We all know what niggas for real been waitin’ on / Push…”

Y’see, Push thinks he is THE man, a self-described legend in his niche of the world, with a new joint he proclaims will be the ‘Album of the Year’.  With tight beats supplied by Kanye, the album, with its’ seven tracks clocking in at a tidy 21 minutes, is hard-hittin’, and with Push displaying an undeniable swagger and arrogance, he’ll get some votes…. check out the video for “If You Know You Know“…

Nas “Nasir”

Nasir_by_Nas_cover

The 12th album from the king of Queens-area, NY rappers tackles both current and historical events, encompassing them within his focus on the effects of the Seven Deadly Sins: Greed, Gluttony, Lust, Envy, Sloth, Wrath, and Pride.

The opening salvo “Not for Radio” is a brutally honest and accurate political statement of race and financial issues, both personal and as witnessed and experienced historically by his people… “Convinced my experiences were meant to be / Helps me navigate as they validate they treachery / Felt established, fake as he smile / handshake questionable / “Am I good?” he ask, thinkin’, “But is he testin’ you?” / (Is he testin’ you?) In my hood, fear does a few things / Make you pussy, make you a snitch / Make irrational moves or even turn you to food…”  This song explores the sin of Pride, and features Puff Daddy as hype man throughout the track.  “Cops Shot the Kid” explores Wrath, features Kanye and Slick Rick, and speaks on the continued police brutality against Blacks; “White Label” speaks on the thought of ‘having too much of a good thing can be bad’ (Gluttony), while “Bonjour” tackles the need to fulfill fleshly desire (Lust).  The expansive 7 1/2 minute “everything” speaks on Greed… “If I had everything, everything / I could change anything / If I changed anything, I mean anything / I would change everything, oh yeah“… “Adam and Eve” tackles Sloth, as it pertains to the proverbial ‘apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, or repeating generational sins, and finally, “Simple Things” tackles Envy, speaking on people’s jealousy of his lifestyle, possessions, etc, with Nas proclaiming at the end, “I just want my kids to have the same peace I’m blessed with.”

Quite simply, this album is stunning, easily the best of the batch of G.O.O.D. releases; it bests the J.Cole project, and pretty much anything else released in hip-hop so far in 2018.  It is, no disrespect to Pusha T’s sentiment of his joint, an “Album of the Year” candidate.  At just 26 minutes, he could’ve gone long form and treated us to a few more tracks…. but…. they’ve got a pattern going on here, and there are ‘only’ seven deadly sins… so I’ll just hit ‘repeat’ and listen to it again… and again. No video is available yet for any of the tracks, but check out the audio for “Not for Radio“…

KIDS SEE GHOSTS

kidsseeghosts

The collaboration between Kanye and Kid Cudi is an exploration into matters supernatural, spiritual, and earthly.  Several of the themes here involve overcoming man-made obstacles – the expectations and judgement of others; it also speaks to getting past personal demons like bi-polar disorder, depression, and drug abuse.

Labelmate Pusha T features on the opening track “Feel the Love“, which is punctuated by what is said to be gunshots- it actually sounds like Ye is vocalizing a Trap beat – to express them feeling the love in the community amidst all the violence.  Ye opens up “Fire” with the lyric “I love all your shit talkin’, I love all your shit talkin’ / You ain’t got nothin’ better to… do with yourself?…” to address those who’ve judged him for what they see as his failures; it also asks for forgiveness for their shortcomings from the one who can provide it.  My personal favorite track here, “4th Dimension” features a sample from old timey swing jazz musician Louis Prima; the track is lyrically scattershot, but it does again touch on people waiting for them to slip up, so they can pass judgement.  Both “Freee“, which is the sequel to “Ghost Town” from “ye“, and “Reborn” are almost spiritual, as they express getting beyond the expectations, and ultimately criticisms of a society hell bent on waiting on and wanting them to fall.  The album and group’s namesake track expresses a similar sentiment along a supernatural road, and the closer “Cudi Montage” features a Kurt Cobain sample, and addresses the effects on everyone resulting from gang violence.

The album has a bit of a Rock ethos to it, courtesy of Kid Cudi and his occasional involvement in that style; again, the beats are tight, and vocal delivery is on point.  Hopefully, these two will collaborate again… there is no official video from the album at this time, but you can enjoy the audio for “Reborn“…

Teyana Taylor “K.T.S.E.”

Teyana-Taylor-KTSE-cover

This is the fifth of five Kanye produced albums, each released a week apart; it is the sophomore effort from the singer/model/actress 27 year old Harlem native perhaps best known (as least to me) as Bow Wow’s character’s baby mama Sabrina from “Madea’s Big Happy Family” (the one shrieking “Byrennnnnnnnnnnn”).

It deviates from the pattern set by the previous four albums only in the respect that it contains eight tracks, instead of seven tracks; still it clocks in at a brief 22 minutes.   The album’s title is an acronym for “Keep That Same Energy”; she opens with “No Manners”, a 99 second ode of infatuation to her NBA player husband Iman Shumpert that proclaims “my hubby-my hubby so handsome / I hold him ransom, I hold him ransom / And then some / I got a man, but ain’t got no manners…”; she follows up that with two tracks dealing with relationship struggles, “Gonna Love Me”, which utilizes a nice Delfonics sample, and “Issues/Hold On”, which opens with a sample from Chicago R&B legend Billy Stewart’s “I Do Love You”.  “Hurry” is a tale of sexual prowess, and “3Way” discusses her willingness to invite another woman into her bed for her man’s pleasure, and features a part from Kanye doing his best K-Ci impersonation.  “A Rose in Harlem” talks about her rise above betrayal by people around, while “Never Would’ve Made It” take the Marvin Sapp track, reimagines it and makes it her own.  Finally, “W.T.P.” closes the set – the acronym stands for “Work This Pussy”, and is a musically, a nice track reminiscent of Chicago House and ”vogue-ing” – honestly though, she could’ve left this track off the album, and let the previous track end it.

The album has its’ moments, and Ye’s production is good, as usual, but it falls in other areas for lack of substance.  Overall, it’s aight… no videos are yet available for the album, but check out the audio for “A Rose in Harlem”…

 

Kanye West “ye”

kanye-west-ye-album-cover

In my last article, I talked about ‘what Kanye said’, referring to his comments about slavery in an interview with TMZ; at the end of the discussion, I expressed that Kanye needed to deliver a fiyah album, to win back some of the fans who were justifiably put off by some of his comments.   Well…. the album isn’t bad, and there is some flame, but not fiyah.  I had to listen to this album several times, to let his lyrics sink in, and ultimately, my overall impression improved over my initial thoughts – and that often happens with someone who is considered a bit of a crazy genius.

The album is perhaps Ye’s most vulnerable, as he puts his business out front- at this point in the game, he’s strong enough to endure any criticisms that may come his way.  Ye opens up with “I Thought About Killing You“, with the declarations “the most beautiful thoughts are always besides the darkest…”  It’s a forum for his inner demons, his bi-polar selves clashing with each other.  “Yikes” explores his opioid addiction, speaking on thoughts and hallucinations while under the influence, and how frightening they can be, while “All Mine” speaks on infidelity.  “Wouldn’t Leave” is about wife Kim’s loyalty to him through everything he’s been through, and “No Mistakes” talks on financial difficulties he’s recently endured; this track includes background vocal help from Kid Cudi and Charlie Wilson, and also features a lyric directed at Drake, as a follow up to a diss Drake directed as him and Pusha T…”Too close to snipe you, truth told, I like you / Too bold to type you, too rich to fight you / Calm down, you light skin!…” Perhaps the centerpiece of the album is “Ghost Town” where Ye sings in a very shaky voice- I wish he had gotten someone you can actually sing to do this part, as I think this is what wrecks it for me; the lyric “We’re still the kids we used to be, yeah, yeah / I put my hand on a stove, to see if I still bleed, yeah / And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free…” declares Ye as comfortable with himself again, and is reprized on the KIDS SEE GHOSTS album.  The closing track “Violent Times” could be the sentiments of any man raising a daughter… “No, Daddy don’t play, not when it come to they daughters / Don’t do no yoga, don’t do pilates / Just play piano and stick to karate / I pray your body’s draped more like mine And not like your mommy’s / Just bein’ salty, but niggas is nuts / And I am a nigga, I know what they want / I pray that you don’t get it all at once / Curves under your dress, I know it’s pervs all on the net…”  As a man raising a daughter, this resonates with me.  He wants his daughters to be a monster “like Nicki” – and Ms Minaj closes the song and the album with a spoken word comment on the lyric. Nice way to end!

Overall, after repeated listening, I have more of an appreciation for the project, although I believe the other albums here are stronger than this one.  Ye will be comfortable, in the aftermath of recent events involving him, with whatever the public thinks- and that’s a step in the right direction for his mental state… No videos are available for the album, but enjoy the audio for “Violent Crimes“…

The Music & the Madness

Now Hear This!  Issue #9  May/June 2018

 

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds…”  (Bob Marley, 1979)

Got a lot to talk about this time around, so I’ll keep it brief here… let’s get to it…


My last full article talked about the dying bricks and mortar music buying experience, and reached out to those of you reading this to post your local independent music emporium.  During the recent Record Store Day event, I happened to be in Myrtle Beach, SC for my 6th wedding anniversary, and was able to stop in to Kilgor Trouts in downtown Myrtle Beach.   The store has a large selection of CD’s , vinyl, some cassettes, even a few 8-tracks and a reel to reel player; they also have Blurays, DVD’s and some VHS tapes. img_2631 While I didn’t purchase anything that day, the store is well worth checking out. If there’s an independent music store in your area, please post their name and address (or a pic of their business card, as I’ve done) in the Comments section of this article.  Let’s support the independent music retailers!


BACK ON THE MAP

The old guard is coming back!  With new releases ramping up substantially the past couple of months, I’ve noticed some artists releasing new music for the first time in a while…. already we’ve seen new music from Basia, who back she was poppin’, was considered the Polish answer to Sade, has released “Butterflies“… upcoming is new music from Tower of PowerSoul Side of Town” (6/1); Roger DaltreyAs Long As I Have You” (6/1); Freddie JacksonLove Signals” (6/4); The English BeatHere We Go Love” (6/15); Swing Out SisterAlmost Persuaded” (6/22); Too $hortThe Pimp Tape” (7/27); Peabo BrysonStand for Love” (August); Echo & the BunnymenThe Stars, The Oceans & the Moon” (October).


 

JAZZMATAZZ

May 18th marked the 25th anniversary of the release of a landmark album for both the Hip-hop and Jazz worlds, “GURU’s Jazzmatazz“.   To honor the anniversary, there is a new 3 LP vinyl reissue of the album now available; it includes the original album, an instrumental version, and a third disc of rare and previously unreleased remixes. jazzmatazz This album brought together musicians from the Jazz world such as Doanld Byrd, Roy Ayers, and Lonnie Liston Smith, and members of the then-current Acid Jazz scene like N’dea Davenport (Brand New Heavies), Ronny Jordan, Carleen Anderson, D.C. Lee, Zachary Breaux, Courtney Pine, French rapper MC Solaar, and others to form a supergroup of sorts, with GURU being the creator and host of the event. There were a total of five projects in the “Jazzmatazz” series; this one and the second volume were the best.  Having pulled it out again myself, it brought back memories of how mind blowing it was when it was originally released in 1993, and how it still sounds fresh today.  Real music with real musicians.  Sadly, several of the contributors for the project have passed away: GURU himself died in 2010, we’ve also lost Donald Byrd, Ronny Jordan, and Zachary Breaux.  The music, however, lives on…


WHAT KANYE SAID…

So let’s talk about it; I’ll give you my thoughts on his comments about Trump and slavery being a choice… let me say in advance that Kanye is on a very short list of hip hop artists that I truly like and appreciate (Kendrick Lamar and Common are the other two)…

Yeezy & Treezy (Trump).  Just like our president, Ye wants to make America great again; they plan to do it with different courses of action, however, and Kanye hasn’t quite grasped that concept yet.  He hasn’t figured out yet that #45 has a different vision for America, one that isn’t necessarily inclusive of people that look like him.  Ye wants everyone to love one another- we all do – but it ain’t likely to happen.  But I think Kanye sees a lot of Trump in himself, that they have some things in common, and that’s why he counts him as part of his personal brotherhood.

What does he see?  A couple of things: 1.) Although they’re not in the same tax bracket, they are both wealthy men, married to controversial and somewhat polarizing women, who have enjoyed some degree of notoriety.  The truth of the matter, in my mind, is that Kanye is Black and his wife is White, and coupled with his upper echelon wealth, it could lend him to be shielded and disconnected from the daily realities of life as a Black person; that doesn’t sit well with his core community; 2) Trump says and does whatever he wants, apparently without impunity; in addition, he doesn’t give a f–k about what anyone thinks about what he says or does. Kanye likes that, and tries to be the same way.

The “slavery is a choice” comment.  The first thing is that the media reduced what he said down to a soundbite that was interpreted in a way he didn’t intend- I think. Before I go any further with that, if you haven’t seen the TMZ interview where the comment was made, you can check it out here…

 

Now……….. this is not the same Kanye who produced “College Dropout“, “Late Registration“, and “Graduation“; he may be gone for good, but hopefully, it’s only temporary.  This Kanye talks about free thought, and tries very hard to articulate his thought processes- I think he knows what he wants to say, but when it reaches his mouth, it doesn’t come out quite right.  His “free thought” on slavery was horribly inarticulate, and it’s costing him major cool points.

I think I have an idea on what he was trying to say.  I think he was trying to say that we are slaves to certain thought patterns or concepts. Example one: “My whole family fat; my grandma was fat, my mama fat, I’m fat, my kids gon’ be fat, too.”  Example two: “The White man won’t let us have nothin’“.   In the first example, slavery to the thought is actually set up to be a generational curse; of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Diet and lifestyle play a large part in whether or not you’re fat, it isn’t automatic through genetics.  In the second example, slavery to this thought dictates that “since I can’t have nothin’, I won’t try to be nothin’“… meaning growth and accomplishment based on one’s own drive and determination are limited.  This thought has at least a shred of truth to it, as Blacks were told generations ago to learn trades, work with your hands, because you’re not smart enough to be a doctor or lawyer, or anything else that uses your mind.   But as a group, we have to overcome this thought process. Now, to be fair, this isn’t exclusive to Black folks, this affects everyone, to some degree.  For instance, White nationalists seem to spend their every waking hour trying to make the life of minorities miserable, pointing out any and every misstep, in an effort to prove their (unknowingly to them) flawed viewpoint – slave to thought.

So I get the “free thought” concept, and it can be a good thing.  But in Ye’s head, it’s more like “freeform thought”, not completely organized.

And if this is what Kanye was trying to say, why couldn’t he say it?  He has since gone on to say that he knows slaves didn’t voluntarily shackle themselves, take the inhumane boat ride, and subject themselves to the plight they suffered through, but he’s an internationally acclaimed rapper, a wordsmith, someone who’s good with metaphors- why did he articulate this so badly?  It is inexcusable, and has made him look like, as former President Obama once referred to him as… a jackass.

His next album betta be pure fiyah…


 

NEW MUSIC REVIEWS


J. Cole “KOD”

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For his fifth studio album, J. Cole comes off as teacher, elder statesman in the game, and one who is at the top of the hip hop heap (actually, that would be Kendrick Lamar).  Some have said he comes off as a bit self-righteous, but I have to contend that self-righteousness is informed by opinion only, and not experience with whatever subject matter is being discussed; in that regard, Cole cannot be necessarily accused of that, as he puts his own issues on display here, in an attempt to influence the actions of those in his listening audience, as well as his peers – the mantra throughout this album is “choose wisely”.

His 2016 album “4 Your Eyez Only” tackled death and the fragility that is life; this new album tackles addiction.  The album title references three themes: Kids on Drugs, King OverDosed, and Kill Our Demons; they are all intertwined.  He introduces the themes through the opening interlude and following track; otherwise, he tackles topics familiar to the rap crowd, such as money-  “ATM” in his hands stands for ‘addicted to money” and speaks of his relationship with it (the track is getting a boost from ESPN commercials, too); “Motiv8” uses Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “get money” line to again describe Cole’s relationship with currency; “BRACKETS” is about taxes, with Cole questioning where his money goes, and presents a compelling argument of whether it is being used as a tool for resources that oppress his people… Cole uses addiction to drugs in various ways: as perhaps a woman he cheats on against his own better judgement (Kevin’s Heart”, a song whose video prominently features comedian Kevin Hart, and references his and Cole’s issues with infidelity)… “What’s done in the dark will always find a way to shine /  I done did so much that when you see you might go blind…”; “Once An Addict” talks of his apathy towards his mother and her alcohol addiction, lamenting he should have done more about it; “FRIENDS” talks of the toll various drugs have had on people he knows, and urges them to “meditate, don’t medicate“; the topics of loyalty and users are something Cole addresses in “The Cut Off“, and in “Photograph“, he uses a picture of a girl he saw online to discuss addiction issues with social media and millennial dating.

Where he ultimately won me over was the final track “1985“, which is reportedly a diss track aimed as this freaky-looking rapper Lil’ Pump, but addresses and teaches the new school hip hop community at large on how the games work- rap and life.  Cole closes long and strong on this track, no need to decipher the meaning, it was upfront and in your face.  In most other places, I needed to sit down with the lyrics and break them down to fully understand, but I got it.  I also like the fact that he has no features on his album, other than kiLLedward, which is his alter-ego.  Several folks have suggested, based on my appreciation of Kendrick Lamar, to check out J. Cole; now I see why – I’m with it… as are many others, because the ENTIRE album- all 12 tracks- are on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (three in the top ten) as of this writing… check out the video for “Kevin’s Heart“…

 

Lake Street Dive “Free Yourself Up”

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I first ran across this Boston via Brooklyn quartet about a year ago on NPR’s Charlie Rose show, and I found them to be a delightfully quirky group- a singer, a string bass, trumpet/guitarist and percussionist – their version of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” on a Boston street corner completely wowed me.  On their last album “Side Pony”, they started to show signs of becoming an actual band, and though the album was good, they had lost some of their original appeal to me – they were slowly creeping towards the mainstream.

Their latest release continues the trend towards the mainstream- they’ve even added a new member to the group, a Black guy who plays keyboards, to further fill out their sound.  So now, the quintet is a standard band: guitar, bass (still string bass), keyboards, drums, and lead vocalist Rachael Price.  Though the musicians are accomplished, it is Price who runs the show, belting out their craftily-written songs with grit and soul.  The opener “Baby Don’t Leave Me Alone with My Thoughts” is not a song about love, but about sanity, likely inspired by events like school shootings; the single “Good Kisser” speaks to a cheating ex-lover trashing her name in the streets, but only telling one side of the story… “If you’re gonna tell them everything / tell them I’m a good kisser / tell them all the things you told me / in your desperate whisper / if you’re gonna tell them everything / don’t leave out the good part / tell them the way you broke my heart / when you told me that you missed her…”;  “I Can Change” is an acoustic number expressing a desire to reform old attitudes toward others, while “Dude” uses a metaphor of male camaraderie to express a woman’s loneliness in her relationship with her man…”Now we don’t seem to talk anymore / we used to kick it like Joe and Obama / Now you just leave me at home playing mama / while you give your friends all your time / would you like me more? / would you like me more / if I was a dude / rolling with your crew…”; then there’s the poignant “Musta Been Something”, a song questioning the end of a relationship… “You said I didn’t do anything wrong / but there musta been something / I could’ve done better…

So in their shift towards a full band, I hope they don’t become merely Rachael Price and the rest of ‘em -she commands the stage with her presence and that powerful voice (and she purdy too).  The songwriting has taken the place of their quirkiness, and they have dedicated this effort to addressing, in their own style, current events in society.  And that, they did very well.  So although somewhat less interesting, they’re still quite enjoyable (but hopefully, they’ll bring back some quirk)… here’s the video for “Good Kisser”…

 

Thievery Corporation “Treasures from the Temple”

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The latest collection from one of my favorite artists of the past 20 years is a set of dub plates, rarities, and remixes, all recorded in Kingston, JA during the sessions for last year’s fantastic “The Temple of I and I” album.

As with most of the other tracks, they have at least a small bit of a reggae influence, if not a straight-ahead reggae track; one notable exception would be the track that has been released as the album’s first video, “Voyage Libre” featuring frequent collaborator Lou Lou – it is a pop track in the Thievery tradition.  There are two remixes from “…I and I” included, and the rest are all new to us- three instrumentals, the opening track, the dubby “San San Rock”, “Music to Make you Stagger”, which goes from a reggae funk vibe to a drum ‘n bass workout, and “Guidance” is like a reggae-influenced deep house track; hip-hop-influenced tracks include “History” and “Joy Ride” featuring rapper Mr. Lif; the standout track for me closes the set, the early 70’s reggae vibe of “Waiting Too Long” featuring Notch.

There are 12 tracks in all; most artists couldn’t release an album this strong with their A-list of tracks, and especially not from spare parts, which is what this albums consists of, yet TC brings it every time.  Check out the video for “Voyage Libre”…

 

Old Crow Medicine Show “Volunteer”

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For their sixth studio album, OCMS decided to go a little electric, adding some electric guitar to the usual all acoustic string band mix; it’s not an overwhelming change, but it is the first time any of the members have been “plugged” in over a decade.

This album was released as part of a commemoration of 20 years of making music, the title being a nod to their continued dedication to the band.  That spirit is imbued in the album’s leadoff track “Flicker & Shine”… “all together, we fall together, we ride together, we’re wild together…”  The track “Dixie Avenue” has the aforementioned electric guitar featured prominently here, in a song where the singer recalls where he fell in love with music; in other places, it adds a bit of color, as do the other instruments.  “The Good Stuff” is a rowdy ole timey drinking song, while “Old Hickory” waxes nostalgic as a traditional country song.  As someone who aspires to add fiddler to my musical resume, I gravitated towards the title track, “Shout Mountain Music”, and in particular, “Elzick’s Farewell”, a furious 111 second jig full of acoustic energy highlighted by the dueling fiddlers.

Longtime fans will not be disappointed by this latest effort, and they have a new fan in me, as this was my first exposure to them… won’t be the last, though, as I’ll be checking out the back catalogue… here’s a live performance of “Flicker &Shine” performed at SXSW…

 

Leon Bridges “Good Thing”

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The sophomore effort from 28 year old Ft Worth, TX native finds him branching out a bit.  His 2015 debut “Coming Home” was an exercise in Vintage Soul circa the early 1960’s; while he hasn’t completely abandoned that style, he is taking a stab at being a contemporary pop star, circa 2018 too.

If I have one criticism of the album, it’s that he’s making this move.  He could carve out a successful niche being the guy that does the retro Soul- he does that rather well; instead, he’s throwing his hat into a very crowded Pop field, where he could get lost.  Understanding the flip side of that though, he doesn’t wish to be pigeonholed as that guy either, I suppose; so, he diversifies the sound.  The opening track “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand” is a splendid piece of Baroque Soul circa about 1968- straight outta the playbook of Curtis Mayfield; “Bad Bad News” updates the sound to a late 70’s George Benson-type dancefloor filler, and “Beyond” and “Mrs” are good front-porch Southern Soul ballads- he also branched out vocally, as well.  Elsewhere, he wants to appeal to current pop sensibilities, so there are a couple of midtempo pop tracks, and a couple of Maroon 5-ish type dance tracks.

A running lyrical theme throughout the album is an ambivalence, a reticence towards committal to a special someone – that someone hurt him bad, and it’s got him effed up; that’s the type of thing that can inform the music. And that, to me, is the “good thing” about this album…  it did.  He makes great videos too, check out “Bad Bad News”…

Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite “No Mercy In This Land”

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Following up their Grammy-winning 2013 album Get Up!, Ben & Charlie have teamed up for a second round of straight-ahead Blues.

For Ben Harper, this is the first time the 48 year old California folk rocker’s been heard from since his controversial “Call It What It Is” track and album from 2016, where he called out police brutality against the Black community- a move that cost him some of his mostly White fanbase – he’s Black and Jewish, but apparently some of his fans didn’t notice that until that track- now in their minds, he’s just another n-word; for the 74 year old Charlie, a native of Kosciusko, MS (just down the road from my mother’s hometown, and Oprah’s birthplace), it’s a continuation of a long career spanning better than 50 years as a Blues harmonica master.  He takes the vocal lead on the title track, a song again laced with social commentary, though implicitly so; other tracks are sung by Harper.  Standouts for me are the title track, “Found the One’, “The Bottle Wins Again”, and “Movin’ On”.

This one is worthy of a second Grammy for this duo… check out a live performance of “Found the One” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert…

 

Arctic Monkeys “Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino”

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The latest from this British outfit takes a wide left turn from their normal guitar-riff driven indie rock…. and turns it into something almost otherworldly.

The concept here is a fantasy scenario where the moon has been inhabited, and the group is the house band at one of its’ first hotels, the album’s title.  The group has transformed into musical lounge lizards, driven by kitschy piano and keyboard riffs, and lead singer Alex Turner rambling on like a champagne bubbles-induced David Bowie about everything under the sun- as if it shined on the moon – including detailed talking points about the hotel itself (“Four Stars Out of Five” refers to ratings given by patrons).

It’s an oddly fascinating album, one that reminds me of the space-age bachelor pad period in the 90’s where hipsters listened to the likes of Martin Denny, Dean Martin, and Lawrence Welk, and groups like Stereolab were the hot thing – there were a couple of groups based out of my hometown- The Coctails, who were jazz-influenced, and another one called Las Toallitas (Spanish for “the little towels”, or, in my toddler-centric world, baby wipes) that were great lounge acts that I got to see live; wouldn’t mind checking these guys out in concert- and they’re on tour now…  Check out the video for “Four Stars Out of Five”…

 

Ziggy Marley”Rebellion Rises”

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The first-born son of Bob Marley has been putting out music now for around 30 years  (mind you, Bob died at age 36), and throughout, he’s always embodied the message of his father while making the music accessible and pop-friendly.  He’s even produced children’s albums and books, and voiced cartoon characters on television.  It’s always been about the positive vibrations.

So when the opening track of this, his 7th solo album (without the Melody Makers) begins with the lyrics “See dem fake leaders / In the place of power they sit / From religion to politics / Riding a wave of fear / Starting fires, they don’t care / Making enemies out of friends…”, and then follows it up with the tracks “A Storm is Coming” and “World Revolution” it actually startled me.  I said the world has even gotten to Ziggy, and he’s mad; indeed, the album contains a couple of strong messages, but he gets back to being himself, wrapping the messages up into an uptempo reggae-pop beat.  The title track is especially powerful, despite the relatively simple construction of the message… “Rebellion rises / everywhere I go / rebellion rises…”, which is meant not just for liberation of people of color, but for all people who are being marginalized in society – it’s his version of Bob’s “Get Up, Stand Up“.

Ziggy, more than his other siblings in the industry, embody the spirit of father Bob- the others are powerful in their own way, as well.  The legacy is alive and well… here is a live clip from the Late Late Show of Ziggy performing “Rebellion Rises“…

Have You Heard That New…

Now Hear This!   Special Issue- 1

“Anyone can make a song, but not everyone can make music…”  (Me)

Between full-blown issues is this special issue, where I review the debut album from Cardi B, a mini-epic from The Weeknd, and another debut, from Alina Baraz… let’s go!


R E V I E W S


Cardi B “Invasion of Privacy”

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I’m gonna just cut to the chase here and tell you that this album is better than I thought it was gonna be………. now…….. having said that, if you know me and you’ve read other reviews of mine, you may also know that I had verrrry loowww expectations for it, as well.  I don’t generally like much of today’s rap/hip hop, but an album that has garnered all the hype, acclaim, chart success, and awards that it has, I had to check it out.  And besides, good music is good music, right?

So….. this won’t be a song by song breakdown of the 13 tracks here; I can sorta categorize them all into three of four different buckets: for me, the tracks that worked best actually had less Cardi B. in them, and more of whomever was featured with her in the track… this is, in and of itself, a departure for me, since I, for the most part, hate the “featured” artist concept- it has replaced the ‘group’ concept…. And this is not so much a diss of Cardi, but a recognition that several of the tracks that feature more than just her are actually songs – compositions with a song structure – “Best Life” feat. Chance the Rapper, “Ring” feat. Kehlani, “I Do” feat SZA, and a track sampling the Pete Rodriguez Latin classic “I Like It” feat Bad Bunny & J Balvin would all fall into this category…. Some others, notably the collabos with Migos (“Drip”) and YG (“She Bad”), didn’t work for me.  Cardi shows a bit of a vulnerable side all by herself in “Be Careful” and “Thru Your Phone”… and then there is the side of her we all know best, the Cardi B of “Bodak Yellow”, “Money Bag”, “Bartier Cardi”, “Bickenhead”, and the album opener “Get Up 10”, all of which she rants and spits venom at her haters over a minimal Trap beat.  I did get to hear between the ranting, of her story of rags to riches, her ascendance in the rap game and all; this is where I suppose some folks find some inspiration from her.  Supposedly, she worked hard to conceal that thick New York accent she has while recording the album, but she failed pretty miserably at it- I hear it throughout, and hate it.

This will be the one everyone talks about throughout 2018; I would love to be able to pull for Cardi B. to continue to be the success she has already become overnight, but after listening to many of the tracks here, and watching her Grammy acceptance speech, I’ve determined she’s not a really likeable person at this point in the game.  Right now, she’s got something to prove, and many people to whom she offers a middle finger and her ass to kiss.  I’d most likely be considered a hater, too… and I’m fine with that… while listening to the album, my wife, who was in the room with me, claimed I was committing spousal abuse for having her listen to it… it’s not THAT bad, but………. here’s the audio for “I Like It”… one of the few tracks I can get with…

The Weeknd “My Dear Melancholy,”

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This surprise release is a welcome return, for many of brother Abel’s fans, to a style reminiscent of his “Trilogy” and “Kiss Land” periods; in contrast to the much more commercial and hugely successful “Starboy” album, this brief 21 minute set of six new tracks heads back towards the deep emotional abyss where we first found him.

The set seems focused on his inability to distance himself from past relationships, including his two failed high-profile pairings with Selena Gomez and Bella Hadid.  On the opening track ‘Call Out My Name’, he asks “I want you to stay even though you don’t want me / Girl, why can’t you wait? (why can’t you wait, baby?) / Girl, why can’t you wait ’til I fall out of love?”… on “Try Me”, he tries to convince a former lover to ditch her current boo and come back to him… “Wasted Time” seems to put his failed soirees into perspective, but he also seems ready to waste more time, cuz he just can’t quite let go… “I Was Never There” speaks of the emotional numbness he resorts to, by way of drugs and alcohol, in order to cope with a breakup: “Ooh, now I know what love is / And I know it ain’t you for sure / You’d rather something toxic / So, I poison myself again, again / ‘Til I feel nothing in my soul (in my soul) / I’m on the edge of something breaking / I feel my mind is slowly fadin’”… on “Hurt You” he tries to warn a former lover not to get involved with him: “And now I know relationship’s my enemy / So stay away from me / I’m warning you…” and then the closer “Privilege” seems to hint of his resignation that a relationship’s reached its’ end, and again how plans to cope with it (drugs, alcohol, casual sex).

Two of the tracks feature the production work of German Gothman Gesaffelstein, to add to all this emotional drama, and the comma at the end of the EP’s title suggests there is perhaps more of this to come.  Having been a Goth guy of the 80’s, I prefer this Weeknd, tortured, anguished and all lyrically, and cinematically dramatic musically, over the “Starboy”; I do hope he finds the glimmer of hope in love to lighten up a lil’ bit, though…  Here’s the video for “Call Out My Name”…

Alina Baraz “The Color of You”

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The proper debut album from Cleveland, OH native comes about three years after her collaboration with Danish downtempo producer Galimatias, 2015’s “Urban Flora” EP, which was beautifully crafted left-field Soul meets chilled electronica.

This new album is relatively brief, giving us nine tracks over just 31  minutes, and is missing a couple of earlier singles released ahead of it – “Lavender” and “Buzzin’” – and is missing the production work of Galimatias, but is still a simmering mix of left-field Soul and chilled out electronica.  It does have one earlier single, “Electric”, one of two duets with singer Khalid, and the new single “I Don’t Even Know Why Though”, which is fire! Check out the video for it…

Killing Me Softly…… The end of the music buying experience as we knew it

Now Hear This!    Issue #8, Mar/Apr 2018

Every Tuesday after work, I’d make the pilgrimage down Fullerton Avenue to Clark Street, make that right turn, and try to find a parking spot near Belden Avenue, so I could check out the new releases at Tower Records.  The store was probably more than 100,000 square feet… separate rooms for Classical and Jazz… a whole section dedicated to imports… listening stations for every genre… CD’s, cassettes, vinyl… posters and other paraphernalia… it was a music lover’s paradise.  But… there was even more. 

After leaving Tower, I’d head north down Clark Street, park somewhere about midway between Fullerton and Diversey Avenues (around Wrightwood Ave would be perfect), and have, within a three block radius, four more music stores: there was Hi-Fi Records… Dr. Wax, a crate-digger’s delight that had several other locations around Chicago… Second Hand Tunes, a vinyl lover’s paradise, also with several locations… and Gramaphone, for the DJ and dance music aficionado.  And there was still more… Peaches had a store at the corner of Clark & Diversey…. and then four blocks up Broadway Avenue was one of three branches of London’s iconic Reckless Records in town.

One could lose a whole afternoon or evening just in this area.

I haven’t even mentioned that before you even made it to Clark Street, if you turned left at the six way intersection of Fullerton/Halsted/Lincoln Avenues, on Lincoln was the legendary store for Punk & Alternative music, Wax Trax!  During its’ heyday from the late 70’s to perhaps the early 90’s, I visited this store almost daily, discovering all sorts of new music, especially Industrial electronic acts like Cabaret Voltaire and Skinny Puppy, to the 4AD stable of acts like Cocteau Twins and Wolfgang Press, while getting a chance to talk with the likes of Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, Sascha from KMFDM, and Groovy Mann (known to us as Frankie) from My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, all of whom you would sometimes catch hanging out in the store.

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This has been… and still is… a habit – music discovery and buying – that started for me as early as 9 years old, when I would have my parents buy me 45’s of songs I’d heard on the radio at the neighborhood record shop.  And as I grew older, and able to venture out on my own, that habit started to cement, thanks to mall stores like Spin-It Records in Evergreen Plaza, where I was able to buy the latest Eurodisco records – especially those on Casablanca Records…. for $1.99, I would get promo copies of albums from all the hottest producers, like Jacques Morali (of Village People fame), and a young Giorgio Moroder, among others… there were downtown stores I would visit after orchestra practice…. there was Rolling Stone Records on Washington off of Wells St… it was here that I began my Punk collection, picking up many of the newest albums (including my beloved Stranglers first three albums) at a discount… at the other end of the Chicago Loop was another icon among record stores, Rose Records… off the corner of Adams & Wabash streets, that store was located in an old building, and covered seven floors, with a different genre on every floor.  And as my tastes continued to grow, I soon discovered Reggae music, and would frequent Conquering Lion Records on East 79th St., picking up tunes I would use for my college radio show.  In the 90’s I discovered Jazz, and fell in love with the music of Ella, Billie, and Miles; at the same time, Acid Jazz became popular, followed by Trip-hop and Jungle/Drum ‘n Bass, as well as various Latin and African fusions.  I would never have had exposure to much of this music if I hadn’t been hangin’ out in music stores.

My reminiscing comes amid news that Best Buy will stop selling CD’s this summer, and Target will sell them only on a consignment basis.  This isn’t to suggest that they ever carried the most vital and interesting music available, only the most popular; it does further limit the available choices from which we can actually buy any physical medium for music.  I can’t think of a single major retailer that still sells CD’s; in fact, we’ve lost many of the independent retailers, as well.  Most of those from my Chicago days are now history; some others that come to mind that I visited are Atomic Records in Milwaukee, and Let It Be Records in Minneapolis- both of them now have online footprints only, the doors to their brick and mortar locations having been shuttered years ago.

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The independent retailers, like those in my featured image, are the places that will keep this buying experience going.  Here in Columbia, SC there are three choices: Scratch ‘n Spin, Manifest, and my favorite, Papa Jazz.  This place reminds me a lot of the late Dr. Wax in Chicago, a place where you can get new and used vinyl, CD’s, videos, and even catch an occasional impromptu live performance.  Talk to Woody or Alex there, and if they don’t have what you’re looking for in stock, they’ll order it for you and have it at the store the very next day  It is this personal touch that you’ll miss the most about the buying experience when it’s no longer available.  You’ll also miss walking into a store, hearing the music playing, and going “what’s THAT you’re playing?”  Countless times, I’ve ended up having the clerk sell me the record or disc they were playing – personal touch.  You’ll miss scoring a deal or securing that rare find that others are looking for- it’s a shopping experience that CANNOT be duplicated by downloading tracks from a computer or streaming from a smartphone.  Millennials may see this differently, and I appreciate sites like iTunes and Spotify, but nothing will replace this experience.  Here’s hoping the music buying experience doesn’t get killed off, and we’re all forced to order from Amazon for physical media.  SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL INDEPENDENT RETAILER!

If you have an independent record and CD emporium in your town, please post a business card, or a name and address for it in the comments.


R E V I E W S


Meshell Ndegeocello “Ventriloquism

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The thing with an album of cover songs is that sometimes, an artist tries to redo a song that’s considered borderline sacred- anything by Luther Vandross, for instance, is generally considered to be off limits, as no-one can do Luther better than Luther himself; another pet peeve of mine (which I mentioned in my recent review of Syleena Johnson’s album), is the changing of a song’s original key to fit the singer’s voice- it just makes the song sound a bit off to me.  Fortunately, neither of these are the case for the 12th album from Ndegeocello, as she doesn’t merely cover the songs, she has reimagined them.

She’s spent the majority of her quarter-century in the industry making music that can be best described as challenging, mostly residing on the outer periphery of the mainstream.  I had the pleasure of catching her tour in support of her second album, 1996’s “Peace Beyond Passion”, seeing her perform at the Double Door in Chicago- at the time, I remember thinking how her stage presence seemed larger than her diminutive five-foot frame- the bass seemed as big as her…

The overall vibe here is a mellow, almost Americana feel to most of the tracks – its’ folkiness wouldn’t sound out of place next to the likes of Lizz Wright, India Arie, or even Terry Callier.  She opens this set with Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s “ I Wonder If I Take You Home”, segues that into Al B. Sure’s “Nite & Day” and Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April”, later does a take on TLC’s “Waterfalls”, and gives Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity” an almost ragtime jazz feel.  She also covers Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”, Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies”, and Sade’s “Smooth Operator”.  Perhaps the tracks most folks will gravitate to are her cover of the Funkadelic classic “Atomic Dog”, which she gives a mellow and only mildly funky treatment, retaining the spirit of the original but giving it the same folky feel that informs much of the rest of the album; and the Force MD’s “Tender Love”, which is one of a couple of cover tracks for which I can say I enjoy more than the original – the other being her cover of The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove”, which is my favorite track in this collection.  This is a fine album of reinterpretations of well-known R&B tracks from the 80’s/90’s that you can put on for those plaintive, contemplative moments… check out the video for “Waterfalls”…

Moby “Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt

moby-everything-was-beautiful-album

The title of this, Moby’s 15th album, basically gives a window into its’ tone – after his previous two albums were brash and punky, this one returns him to more familiar territory, one of beautiful, cinematic synths, melancholic melodies and lyrics, and trippy to mid-tempo beats.   There is, despite the slower tempos here, a sense of nervous energy throughout, as if waiting in anticipation of worse-case scenarios, and thinking back to an earlier time when things were different… better; I was almost expecting a version… or at least an interpolation of “The Way We Were” to show up in a song.  It is, ultimately, a world weary view of things falling apart, a look at the societal woes and political upheaval present in today’s world as an impending apocalypse.

If all of that sounds depressing, there is a way in which the beauty of the music and the solace you gain from commiserating with other like-minded souls bring you a certain kind of peace… at least it does for me.  “Like a Motherless Child” is a track based off the title of an old Negro spiritual; “Welcome to Hard Times” is mellow and dubby, much in the vein of fellow innovators Thievery Corporation; “A Dark Cloud is Coming” is a trippy blues that harkens back to what I consider Moby’s most fertile period, his “Play” and “18” albums – only instead of using samples, he uses actual singers; where “The Tired and the Hurt” says “There was light and clear skies / There was hope and endless dreams / There was love and no dying / There were forests as far as I could see” in describing how everything was once beautiful, and nothing hurt, “This Wild Darkness” simply pleads “Ooh in this darkness / please light my way / light my way”.  Moby employs several softly-voiced female vocalists, and contributes his own world-weary vocals, sometimes singing, other times in a sort of rap style- not really rhyming or rhythmic, just kind of shaky – perfect for the tone of the music.

It takes a crafty producer to make something with such melancholy sound beautiful at the same time, but Moby has once again accomplished it.  Here is the video for “This Wild Darkness”…

Snoop Dogg presents “The Bible of Love

SnoopDogg-BibleofLove

When I first heard the news that Snoop had released a gospel album, my first reaction was one that I’m sure many others had- a smirk and a side eye; this is the man that, for two and a half decades has been thought of as everything but synonymous with God.  A few short years back, he changed his name to Snoop Lion and released a reggae album; given his reputation, you could almost buy that concept- he likes weed, Rastas like weed- it seemed like a perfect combination.  It was an ill-advised album.

For this release, Snoop assembled a who’s who of the Gospel and R&B world past and present, from such royalty as Rance Allen and The Clark Sisters, to other current working artists like Tye Tribbett, Fred Hammond, John P. Kee, Marvin Sapp and Kim Burrell; he’s got newer artists like Mali Music and newcomer B. Slade (watch out for this guy), and even a quartet called the Zion Messengers.  On the R&B side, there’s Faith Evans and K-Ci from Jodeci, Charlie Wilson and newcomer October London (another name to watch out for), as well as others.  Snoop acts as the overseer of the project more so than as an actual artist- he does pop in from time to time throughout the double disc’s 32 tracks, just to spit a verse or two, letting you know he’s still there.  It’s almost like this is his personal WOW Gospel compilation.

The overall vibe of the album strikes a pretty good balance between the seriously holy stuff and more God-centered tracks, so there’s something for everybody.  I think a major motivation for this project for Snoop was to connect with inner city types who are cynical of giving their life to God; lyrics promote the usual rhetoric, but with more urban and contemporary R&B flava – this is what gives an artist like Mali Music his juice.  I like this project, but if I have one reservation, it would be about the direction Snoop takes next: is this a one-off thing for him, and he returns to doing what’s he’s always done – in other words, doing an R. Kelly and alternating releases that are quasi-religious with ratchet stuff– or this is a permanent direction for him.  His verses in this project suggest he’s converted over; only time will tell- everyone will be watching, because if does go back to what he’s always done, this project will be looked upon as purely disingenuous. Check out the trapped-out remix of The Clark Sisters “Blessed and Highly Favored”…

Ministry “AmeriKKKant

Ministry-Amerikkkant

The head minister has returned, and he’s mad as hell!  Thought to be retired, Al Jourgensen has gotten the band back together again, because he has something more to say.

Al has always been anti-establishment, going back to the early days when I was acquainted with him by way of chance encounters at Wax Trax! Records back in the mid to late 80’s- then, I was bestowing heaps of praise onto him for his 1986 album “Twitch”, which was a landmark in Industrial Electronic music; his style eventually morphed into an Industrial metal, incorporating bruising guitars with the punishing percussion.  I haven’t spoken to him now for probably 30 years or better, but nothing’s changed about his outlook – if anything, he’s dug in and more entrenched than ever.  It would be (and has been) convenient for some to conclude that this album is a kind of certain money grab, as his ‘easy’ target would appear to be the 45th President, and those in opposition to him would quickly get behind something like this; after all, Ministry was supposed to be disbanded for good.  Alas, a deeper look into the project reveals that he’s taken the concept a step deeper, to an examination, investigation, and ultimately, condemnation of the condition of a society that would allow for the election of such an individual as #45.

As concept albums go, not sure if this was intended as one, but it essentially worked out that way, as it’s a 48-minute scathing indictment on several areas of American society.  Beginning with the opening track “ I Know Words”, it goes right in with slowed (slurred) sound samples of 45’s proclamations and promises, with an almost pretty classical music backdrop… “We will make America great again / we’re going to build a wall…”; follows it up with “Twilight Zone”, a  track describing his feelings when he awoke the day after the election and learned of the winner… “feeling a little bit nauseous / It felt like descending into a bottomless pit on a high speed rail / Careening head first into the unknown…”; and then “Victims of a Clown” speaks of the position in which the country finds itself… “Angry man / Septic tank / Orange / Toxic lies / Rejection of reality / Cuts through like a knife…”

And on it goes throughout the nine tracks on the album, Al snarling and growling his distorted vocals over hard-hitting, largely mid-tempo Industrial metal backdrops.  He’s caught some flak for the track “Antifa”, as he appears to show support for the collective that’s been named a terrorist group….. I call BS on that whole thing… they’re called a terrorist group, the Black Panthers were shut down by the government, but the Klan and all of the other White Supremacist cells continue on… and Dylann Roof is still alive… truly insulting to all rational thinking Americans… but I digress… The title track closes the album, and it actually gives the slightest little twinkle of a glimmer of hope for all of this chaos… “Well, I guess I don’t know what to expect / Well, I guess that’s all we got…”  You’re sooo right, Al.  Check out the video for “Twilight Zone”…

The Best Music of 2017 (to me)

Issue #7, January 2018

“What you won’t and what you will / Working for your dollar bill
Sad to see the old slave mill / Is grinding slow, but grinding still
Walking home, a youth gets killed / Police free to shoot at will
Sad to see the old slave mill / Is grinding slow, but grinding still
Nine to five you know the drill / Weekends are a short lived thrill
Sad to see the old slave mill / Is grinding slow, but grinding still
Cup runneth over till it spill / Take until they’ve had their fill
Sad to see the old slave mill / Is grinding slow, but grinding still.”

(Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley, 2017)

Welcome to a new year, one that finds us in worse shape than we were in at the beginning of last year; here’s hoping things change for the better.

Musically, the past year had its’ highlights, but I still find the industry is going to hell in a handbasket.  When I worked for a major cable movie network some years ago, I was in charge of answering customer correspondence.  Some of the letters I received were in reference to new shows being broadcast, or those in current rotation on the channel; they were usually in protest of the content of the shows, and calling for them to be taken off the air.  My job was to defend the company’s anti-censorship viewpoint, in that whatever they broadcast, there was a market for it, and quite simply, if that market wasn’t you, then you were free to change the channel- the company didn’t believe in placating the sensibilities of some at the expense of the freedom of expression and choice of others.

Now I mention all of this to say that there is music (or stuff trying to pass as music) out there that I wish I didn’t hear;  there is so much gratuitous violence, graphic sexual content, and just general vulgarity out there in the music industry now that no-one bats an eye.  I made the mistake recently of purchasing a song from iTunes without fully listening to the message in it.  As we’ve all done, we heard the music- it cut a nice groove, nice beat, seemed to be a smooth track, but the version of the song that was played on the radio was different than the one I bought – it had different, cleaner lyrics.

It is at this point that I’m reminded of a letter I once received from a customer… in it, she wrote: “when I was young, the song that played on the radio was ‘how much is that doggie in the window?‘… when MY daughter listens to the radio, she hears ‘like a virgin, touched for the very first time‘…. I shudder to think what her daughter might listen to…”

Well, I have the answer for ya… she might hear something like this:

“Face down, ass up / Back, back, back it up / Lemme get both of them legs And put em both behind your head /This shit is gettin deep, deep up in there / Feel your legs gettin weak up in here / Get a face full of that gushy, I’m close baby don’t push me, this is how it always should be when… / When we… fuck…”

The question became: would I like to see stuff like this censored?  The answer is still ‘NO’.  There are people that like stuff like this, so they should have the right to listen to it.  If I don’t like it, I just won’t listen to it.  So I deleted the song off my playlist…  This brings me back to my opening quote- the slave mill that is the music industry allows, even encourages, then promotes and generates stuff like this to feed our minds and our spirits.  And as I raise my soon-to-be 4 year old daughter, I have to wonder what she will be listening to in a few years…


Almost all of the albums in my “Best Of” list were reviewed in earlier editions of NOW HEAR THIS!, so check the previous issues for the full reviews. Here are my 15 top album releases from 2017 (in no particular order)…

Chronixx “Chronology”

Chronixx-ChronologyMy overall top album of the year, the debut from this Jamaican singer is a varied affair of Reggae, R&B, Pop, Electronica, with songs of hope, inspiration, and empowerment.  Nominated for a Grammy, it is my choice for the Reggae category.

 Thievery Corporation “The Temple of I & I”

thievery corp-the templeofi&i The first great album released in ’17, TC went to Kingston, JA for inspiration, and produced an album’s worth of their signature brand of genre-blending dubtronica.

Chris Stapleton “From A Room, Vol. 1”

Chris-Stapleton-FromARoomVol1The man who is credited with bringing back real Country music gave us this first half of a duology of 18 tracks that displayed his talents worthy of its’ Grammy nomination, which I predict he’ll win.

Toro y Moi “Boo Boo”

toro-y-moi-boo-booLo-fi ambient funk and indie rock from Columbia, SC native Chaz Bundick is heavy on the 80’s aesthetic; a self-described “breakup album”, it is anything but its’ title…

 Valerie June “The Order of Time”

Valerie-June-The-Order-Of-Time The queen of self-described ‘Organic Moonshine Roots’ music, June mixes Country & Bluegrass with Folk, Blues, Soul, and Rock, and along with her distinctive vocalizing, she’s an experience unlike none other.

Rhiannon Giddens “Freedom Highway”

Rhiannon Giddens-Freedom-Highway Second solo album from Greensboro, NC native is a Roots music album mixing elements of Folk, Bluegrass, Ragtime & New Orleans style jazz into a deeply personal song cycle exploring the experiences of slaves as told in their words.  Haunting, chilling, and beautiful.

U2 “Songs of Experience”

U2-SongsofExperience The aging post-punksters show that their passion for world affairs still burns, their commentary being at turns mature and understated or blunt and incendiary.  Their best album in years, in my opinion.

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings “Soul Of A Woman”

SharonJones-SoulofaWoman The final album from the hardest working woman in show business is one of her best.  She will be sorely missed.

Zeshan B “Vetted” 

 ZeshanB-Vetted From the North side of Chicago comes a 1st generation Indian-Muslim guy who sings Classic Soul music and original Indian tunes (in three languages) and plays the harmonium. Coming off like a curry Curtis Mayfield,  he does it well, too.

Mali Music “The Transition of Mali”

Mali Music-TheTransitionofMali He sings God-centric songs with a contemporary R&B and hip-hop flava- he strayed away from this a bit on this album (alienating some of his fans), but the spiritual message is still in his music most of the time, and it’s good all of the time.

Arcade Fire “Everything Now”

Arcade Fire-EverythingNow For all of the pretentious distractions that preceded the release of the album, and throughout its’ weird moments, it’s actually a pretty good statement on consumerism.

Kendrick Lamar “DAMN.”

Kendrick Lamar-DAMN One listen to the tracks “FEEL” and “FEAR” will tell you all you need to know about the tone of this Grammy-nominated album.  Kung-fu Kenny remains at the top of his game, and is well ahead of the rest of the hip hop heap. He will win several awards with this one.

ODESZA “A Moment in Time”

ODESZA-AMomentApart Seattle duo and darlings of the Sirius XM Chill channel, their third album is a multi-dimensional Electronica effort, something you can’t say about most albums in this genre.

Lizz Wright “Grace”

Lizz Wright-Grace Her best album to date, her personal ode to the Southern experience.  She mixes elements of Jazz, Blues, Folk, Gospel and Country into a tasty simmering stew.

Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley “Stony Hill”

DamianMarley-StonyHill Grammy-nominated album from one of the sons of the Marley empire is a mélange of different reggae styles, both fun and philosophical lyrically, and a worthy contender for the hardware.


OTHER “Best Of 2017” NOMINEES

 

Best Contemporary/Alt R&B Album

SZA “Ctrl”

SZA-Ctrl

The debut from this artist reads as a peek into her personal diary; it is an intimate look into the journey of a twentysomething woman navigating the pitfalls of life and love.  She connected with her target audience- others like her, and those of us also interested in taking the journey too.

Best Jazz Instrumental Album

Kamasi Washington “Harmony of Difference”

Kamasi Washington-HarmontofDifference

This tenor saxophonist’s first album was a 17 track, nearly three hour, three CD set; this is essentially a mini-album of just six tracks covering just over a half-hour- short, to the point, and good.

Best Jazz Vocal Album

Gregory Porter “Nat ‘King’ Cole & Me”

Gregory Porter-NatKingCole&Me

Gregory covers the music of his childhood hero, done just the way he did it. Very lushly orchestrated, it makes for great listening music; of course, you won’t go wrong with this man’s rich baritone, either.

Best World Album

Somi “Petite Afrique”

Somi-PetiteAfrique

This is a song cycle chronicling the immigrant experience as they attempt to assimilate into a gentrifying area of Harlem; for this daughter of Rwandan & Ugandan immigrants now living the experience, it is a personal statement that is well configured.

Best Video

Chronixx “Majesty”

The best video off the best album of 2017…

 

Best Remix

Portugal, the Man “Feel It Still (Medasin Remix)”

This bouncy little dance track off their “Woodstock” album is turned into a loungey, downtempo track that’ll have you bobbin’ ya head.  Here’s the track…

 

Best Use of a Sample

Bonobo “Kerala”

I always knew someone would sample that part of Brandy’s track “Baby” where she elongates the title word; Bonobo turns it into a tribal chant over an infectious dance groove off his “Migration” album.  Here’s the crazy video for it…

NHT #6

In this edition:

  • Reviews of new music from Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Chris Stapleton, Mista Savona, Morrissey, Syleena Johnson, Maroon 5, Junior Natural, U2,  Seal

 

No one wants to hear your opinion… unless they agree with it.  Such is the world in which we live.

Increasingly, music artists are wearing their thoughts on their sleeves, trying to make a difference in an age where there is no privacy, everything is filmed or recorded, and everyone’s in their feelings.  To be completely honest, people are hyper-sensitive these days; in this digital age, a wrong thought captured, an inappropriate text or tweet, a politically or socially incorrect statement made, could ruin your life!

There is a way to channel communication for the betterment of everyone within view or earshot, and I applaud and support those who are bold enough to make a statement that addresses and confronts injustices, inequalities, and indignities.  If you’re the sort that would rather not hear it, then the statements are probably intended for you…

On another note, the 2018 Grammy Award nominations have been released; the awards show is scheduled to air on January 28th from Madison Square Garden in NYC.  Last year, the show was branded #GrammysSoWhite … after looking at the nominees for this year, the upcoming show will probably get branded #GrammysSoBlack.  Supposedly, there was a change in the voting system that led to this sudden shift in the demographics of the nominees; we all know this is about nothing more than damage control.  It wasn’t fair last year, and it won’t be fair this year (even, but not fair).  It is, like many other things in today’s America, political.  All any of us want is fairness and balance… is that so hard to attain???  If you would like to see the complete list of nominees, click this link from Variety magazine…

http://variety.com/2017/music/news/2018-grammy-nominations-list-nominees-1202623881/

Next month’s edition of Now Hear This! will present my Best of 2017 lists, and my picks and predictions for the Grammys in the most popular categories…  This issue hits during the holiday season; interestingly, there is no holiday music being reviewed here.  Since retailers started playing this music around Thanksgiving, I’m already sick of it!

Here’s wishing you and yours a Happy Holiday season… now let’s get to the tunes!


 

      R   E   V   I   E   W   S


Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

Soul of a Woman

SharonJones-SoulofaWoman

Released to coincide with the one year anniversary of Sharon’s passing, comes their final studio album.  This is the proper follow-up to 2014’s Grammy Award-winning “Give the People What They Want”, an album, at the time it was released, I thought was one of their weaker efforts- yet they took home an award for it, Sharon’s only Grammy, achieved at 57 years of age.  To my ears, if that one took home an award, certainly this one should, as well – and not because it’s a posthumous release, but because it’s a really good album.  She kicks things off with a prediction of unity among people (“Matter of Time”), followed by one of the gritty funk workouts for she which was renowned (“Sail On”); the first half of the album is more upbeat, while the second half is somewhat mellower, although it begins with arguably the album’s standout track, the upbeat “Searching for A New Day”, followed by the splendidly haunting early 70’s baroque Soul track “These Tears (No Longer for You)”.  The two tracks that follow, “When I Saw Your Face” and “Girl! (You Got to Forgive Him)” are beautiful tracks marred by occasional harmonic dissonance by her background vocalists Saun & Starr, who are Daptone labelmates.  The closing track “Call On God” is a Gospel-soaked piano ballad penned by Jones herself, and given that she did as the title suggested, and He has subsequently called her home, it’s enough to bring you to tears while listening to it.   I have this album on repeat right now, I cannot get enough of it.  Sharon was a performer with seemingly limitless energy, even during her performances after her Cancer diagnosis should have sapped her of much of her strength – she would say “I have Cancer, but Cancer don’t have me”.  She is a person that inspires one to continue to pursue their dream, regardless of how much life you’ve already lived- you’re never too old to achieve your dreams and goals; she inspires this reviewer tremendously. The music world lost a good one, but her spirit and music will live on… please enjoy “Matter of Time“…

 

 

Chris Stapleton

From A Room, Vol. 2

ChrisStapleton-FromARoomVol2

Second half of the duology from 39 year old Lexington, Kentucky-bred singer presents the final nine songs from the sessions that produced the tracks for both albums… the record company could’ve released all the tracks as a single disc, but to maximize profits, they decided to split it into two volumes.  Just as with the first volume, this one is nine tracks covering a tidy 32 minutes, and again, that time is well spent, as Stapleton proves to be one of the rising stars, not just in Country, but in popular music in general.  I will say that I give a slight edge in song quality to the first volume -nothing has hit me with the intensity of “I Was Wrong”, “Second One to Know”, or “Death Row”, but that’s not to say there aren’t some strong tracks here, too.  The lead tracks from the album have been “Millionaire”, a song about the way his woman makes him feel, and “Scarecrow in the Garden”, a story of a farm, passed down from Northern Irish immigrants through several generations, that isn’t what it used to be; so far, I’ve gravitated towards the rockin’ “Hard Livin”, about a man who realizes his most rambunctious days are behind him (“never thought it would happen to me / but this hard livin’ ain’t as easy as it used to be…”), a tale about two losers in love getting together (“Nobody’s Lonely Tonight”), the bluesy rocker “Midnight Train to Memphis”, and “Friendship”, which I call Chris’ version of “Lean On Me”.  At just over an hour combined, the two volumes make for great listening; Vol. 2 overall is maybe a half notch less successful than the first volume, so that means it’s still very good, and the tracks are still growing on me.  Chris is a fine singer/songwriter and a great guitarist who seems to use minimal technique to great emotive effect… There isn’t a video yet for any of the tracks, but you can enjoy the audio for “Friendship”…

 

 

Mista Savona

Presents Havana Meets Kingston

MistaSavona-HavanaMeetsKingston

A couple of issues back, I reviewed the latest project from Ozomatli, who took Mexican classics and gave them a reggae treatment; I found that album to work well on those terms.  This is a project from Australian producer Jake Savona that assembles a who’s who of musicians and singers, both past and present, from Cuba and Jamaica, in Havana to create this fusion of island styles.  In theory, this sounds like an exciting idea; in practice, the indigenous styles do not fit very well together.  What you end up getting on several tracks is kinda of a ‘one or the other’ scenario: a reggae track with both Jamaican and Cuban vocalists, or a Cuban track featuring Jamaican and Cuban vocalists; there are also straight reggae tracks with no Cuban influence.  A true musical fusion doesn’t occur all that often, but when it does, it’s beautiful. The track “Chan Chan”, originally done by Compay Segundo, best known as part of the Buena Vista Social Club, blends a familiar Latin keyboard riff over a bubbling reggae beat supplied by the legendary Sly & Robbie; “Carnival” similarly provides a nice musical fusion, with Cuban vocalist Solis and up ‘n coming reggae artist Randy Valentine supplying vocals.  “La Sitiera” features Beatriz Marquez and Rolando Luna, and is a good meshing of Cuban folk and reggae.  A collection of this sort wouldn’t be complete without a Marley cover, so Randy Valentine and Cuban vocalist Anyilena join together on “Vibracion Positive”.  This is the first of two installments of this project – the second installment in this series is coming in early 2018.  I love the idea of this musical fusion, and eagerly await the next installment, as I quite enjoy this album; I do wish for more of a true fusion of the two styles from a purely musical perspective, though… check out the video for “Carnival”…

 

 

Morrissey

Low In High School

Morrissey-LowInHighSchool

One of alt rock’s biggest mopes is back.  Here is an artist that I followed throughout his years with The Smiths, and then the early part of his solo career.  I kinda left him alone, as he became more and more of a mope than I always knew him to be, but he was pulling me down (and if you knew me back then, that was saying something).  So for me to take a listen to this, his 11th solo album over the past 30 years, is like checking up on an old friend you hadn’t seen or talked to in a while- see what they’re up to these days kinda thing.  Now Moz has always had the tendency to make the outrageous statement, offer an opinion that isn’t always popular, or bite the hand that feeds him (hence why he is always looking for a record company to call home after the latest one dumps him).  He is both extremely literate and articulate, and like Elvis Costello, I’ll need to sit down with the lyric sheet to catch the meaning of his wordy compositions. My overall impression of his latest project is that he continues to maddeningly underachieve making a consistently strong album.  He seems to have a couple of running themes on this project – he seems to have definite opinions on the Israeli/Arab conflict, and an obsession with crotches.  He has issues with authority figures, the media… in short, he doesn’t seem to like anything or anybody.  His youthful cynicism has jelled into resignation, condescension, and bitterness.  The best track here is “Spent the Day in Bed”, a song about the joys of foregoing responsibility; this is a song that shows what Moz is capable of producing at his best.  At his worst, there is most of the second half of the album – song titles like “The Girl from Tel-Aviv Who Wouldn’t Kneel”, “Who Will Protect Us from the Police?”, “In Your Lap” and “When You Open Your Legs” (two of the three “crotch” songs), and then “I Bury the Living”, a song with a lyric told from a soldier’s point of view that questions why he’s in a war, and then condescendingly appears to mock the mother after the soldier is killed; the closer “Israel” covertly poses an anti-Islam stance.  The music is theatrical, melodramatic, bordering on campy.  Personally, I think Morrissey has gone mad… here is the video for “Spent the Day In Bed”…

 

 

Syleena Johnson

Rebirth of Soul

SyleenaJohnson-RebirthofSoul

Latest project from the pride of Harvey, IL, and the daughter of legendary R&B singer Syl Johnson, is an album of Soul cover songs.  There seems to be a proliferation of these types of albums recently – could it be a backlash against much of the music currently passing as Soul, but is often just moody Electronica sung by Black folks?   Perhaps… anyways, dad produced this album of mostly well-known and well-worn Soul classics for his daughter to interpret, including his “Is It Because I’m Black?” and “We Did It”, Aretha’s “Chain of Fools”, Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops”, Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You”, and Betty Swann’s “Make Me Yours”, among others.   I had high hopes for this album, just based off of the title alone; alas, although it’s not a bad album, I’m just not totally feeling this project.  Her voice makes up for some inherent shortcomings of the album, so the performances are mostly good.  One thing is that, as I’ve said before, some originals just need to be left alone, and not redone; second thing is I hate when an artist changes the key of the original song to fit their voice- to coin another old Soul nugget: if it don’t fit, don’t force it – your ears will adjust to the key, but to my classically-trained musical ears, it makes the songs sound just a bit off.  Finally, although I know the song is about a dance from the 60’s, NO ONE should EVER remake “Monkey Time” – has a whole other meaning in today’s world…  here is an audio clip for “We Did It”…

 

 

Maroon 5

Red Pill Blues

Maroon5-RedPillBluesThe Adam Levine show has rolled out a new album; it is their most commercial one to date.  This band has changed so much since their 2002 debut “Songs About Jane”, and many of their early fans are not happy about those changes- you can count me among them.  Firstly, they should change their name perhaps to Maroon 7, now that there are seven members in the band; they could also reduce the name to just Maroon, as a solo moniker for Levine.  Secondly, it doesn’t take seven guys to produce this style of groove-driven radio pop; is this an evolution of sound, or have they simply sold out?  Thirdly, there are too many collabos for me, and those who collaborated with the group sound not only out of place, but out of their element.  Kendrick Lamar features on “Don’t Wanna Know”, but he just doesn’t sound like himself; similarly, LunchMoney Lewis (“Who I Am”), A$AP Rocky (“Whiskey”), and Future (“Cold”) seem like they were just kinda thrown into an uncomfortable mix (for them), for the benefit of a perceived added cool factor.  Julia Michaels helps out on “Help Me Out”, and woozy R&B chanteuse SZA features on the single “What Lovers Do”.  It’s not a total washout, however, there are some good hooks here, too- “Best 4 U” gives me a feeling similar to The Weeknd’s “I Feel It Coming”, there is the mildly reggae-ish “Visions”, and the funky house of “Plastic Rose”; for older fans, the 11-minute jam track “Closure” may whet your appetite.  Depending on your personal musical tastes, this effort will either be a complete success or a total failure; I’m somewhere in the middle, a little closer to the latter opinion rather than to the former one… Here is the video for “What Lovers Do”…

 

 

Junior Natural with Sly and Robbie

Militant

JuniorNatural-Militant

After listening to just a couple of tracks from this album, they immediately took me back to early Black Uhuru and everything else released on the Taxi label, run by the legendary drum and bass duo Sly & Robbie, circa 1979-83; the tracks they laid down under the vocals are classic Taxi- One Drop and Rockers-style riddims with their unmistakable trademark electronic flourishes.  This is the debut album from 22 year old Junior, who surprisingly hails from Sweden- he sounds like he’s off the island.  He’s been floating around the scene for more than a decade, firstly as a drummer, and then grabbing the mike a few years later, releasing his first tracks in ’12, while still a teenager.  He’s a conscious artist, a devout Rasta, singing songs of unity and empowerment, and offering social commentary on the state of the world, only breaking stride long enough to do one love song (“Close to You”).  This is a very satisfying debut album, one that was recorded in just two nights, and one you must check out.  In the meantime, check out the video for the leadoff track from the album, “Soldiers”…

 

 

U2

Songs of Experience

U2-SongsofExperience

Positioning is everything; I know this all too well from my place of employment.  The 14th album from the aging post-punk legends is supposedly a companion piece to the album everybody on iTunes owns- whether they want to or not- 2014’s “Songs of Innocence”.  It was scheduled to be released a year ago, but with the elected choice of the 45th president of the U.S., they decided to shelve it in order to make a more definitive statement.  And they did that… sort of.  Whereas Depeche Mode went straight for the throat on their “Spirit” album, U2 often decides to take a less confrontational approach- more of a glancing blow, rather than a direct hit to the gut.  Case in point, the very first track, “Love Is All We Have Left”… “Nothing to stop this being the best day ever / Nothing to keep us from where we should be / I wanted the world but you knew better / And that all we have is immortality / Don’t close your eyes / Love and love is all we have left…” Sometimes, though, they’re more straight-forward… “Fight back / Don’t take it lyin’ down, you got to bite back / The face of liberty’s starting to crack / She had a plan up until she got smacked in the mouth / And it all went south / Like freedom…”  Bono sings on “Get Out Your Own Way”.  This track features an outro from Kendrick Lamar, which leads into his intro on “American Soul”, the track he interpolates into “XXX” from his “DAMN” album.  Then there is inspiration to be agents of change on “Blackout”:  “When the lights go out, throw yourself about / In the darkness where we learn to see / When the lights go out, don’t you ever doubt / The light that we can really be…” You can hear traces of every era of U2’s sound in the tracks, giving it a good deal of sonic variety; it shows the band is still passionate about social and political matters, and still relevant as a unit, something the band has wondered about themselves – after all, they’ve been in the game for close to four decades.  The Deluxe edition of the album features a couple of bonus tracks and a couple of remixes, and are worth the extra dollars.  Some have said this isn’t U2 at their best, but I personally think this is their best effort in years- on both sides, it probably has something to do with what I alluded to at the top of this issue…  check out the video for “You’re the Best Thing About Me”…

 

 

Seal

Standards

Seal-Standards

This is the third album of covers done by the 54 year old Brit, following his pair of R&B covers albums, 2008’s “Soul”, and 2011’s “Soul 2”.  On this project, he covers Jazz classics and the American Songbook, backed by some of the original musicians who helped make the songs famous way back when.  It is a lushly orchestrated affair, and Seal does his best to come off as perhaps the black Tony Bennett on tracks made famous by him, Sinatra, Ella, Nat ‘King’ Cole, and others.  The big question I have about this album is: who’s gonna buy it?  Much of Seal’s fanbase is probably not interested in this style of music, especially not done as it was in the 1940’s and 50’s, and those who could be interested (like myself) will probably defer back to the original versions.  Seal’s readings of these songs are satisfactory, though they won’t make you forget those originals; nice try, though…..  As usual these days, there are regular and Deluxe versions of the album- the Deluxe version gets you three extra tracks, notably two holiday songs: “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”, and Cole’s “The Christmas Song”.  Here is the video for “Luck Be A Lady”…