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”…

 

 

 

 

Now Hear This!

Issue # 5  November 2017

 

  • In this issue: Reviews of Gregory Porter, Thomas Rhett, Lizz Wright, Robert Plant, Ledisi, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Kamasi Washington, Darius Rucker, ODESZA, Fantasia, Ella Fitzgerald

  • I Want My Daddy’s Records!

 

The last Quarter of the year usually ushers in a flurry of new releases, and this year is proving to be no different.  Now that I’m back on track schedule-wise, the albums reviewed in this issue are truly new, within about a month or so.

Among the new tunes covered in this issue is the tribute album to Nat ‘King’ Cole from Gregory Porter; a new but not new Ella Fitzgerald album; new R&B release from Ledisi, as well as a quick hit on Fantasia’s Christmas album; new EDM releases from ODESZA and 80’s faves OMD; for my Country fans, I’ve reviewed the new Darius Rucker album, as well as Thomas Rhett’s latest;  finally, the uncategorizable Lizz Wright has a new project, and there are quick hits on the new projects from Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant, and Jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington.

Looking ahead to the last two months of the year, I’m eagerly awaiting the second half of Chris Stapleton’s duology “From A Room, Vol. 2”, which drops on 12/1- have already heard the song samples, and it’s GOOD… new music from Sam Smith, Lalah Hathaway, and Maroon 5 should be out by the time you’re reading this issue; others with new music coming include the final new release from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Bjork, and a set of Jazz standards from Seal.

So without further delay, let’s see what’s music to my ears… and what’s not.


REVIEWS

 

Gregory Porter “Nat King Cole & Me

The latest release from baritone Jazz singer extraordinaire Porter is a covers album of the music of his childhood hero.  Back in Cole’s day, heavily orchestrated albums were the order of the day, and almost a rite of passage for Black artists in the 50’s and 60’s- almost every popular group back then did a covers album, in what looks today to be a desperate (and usually dismal) attempt to gain crossover appeal- it appeared, however, to be the thing to do at the time.  So Gregory lovingly covers the tunes in a traditional orchestrated Jazz setting; the results are, of course, wonderful.  He does all the best known Cole tracks, like “Mona Lisa”, “Smile” and “Nature Boy”, and also offers a splendid rendition of “The Christmas Song”.  He reprises “When Love Was King”, a track he did on his 2013 “Liquid Spirit” album, and the Jazz standard “Miss Otis Regrets”.  The so-called Deluxe version of the album, which wasn’t yet available in stores as of this writing, adds three additional tracks to the Standard version (it is available on iTunes and streaming sites).  I posted the video of “Smile” to my Facebook page, but, in case you aren’t connected with me there, or you otherwise missed it, here it is…

 

 

Thomas Rhett “Life Changes

The first time I listened to the third album from Georgia native Rhett, I had a reaction similar to what some others wrote about it in their assessment of the album:  this isn’t REAL Country music; I want MY Country music to sound like it, not like pop music with a Southern accent.  So when I have an adverse reaction like that, I will give the project a second listen, to see if my first reaction will stick.  The best way to kinda sum this album up is to say that this isn’t your daddy’s Country… but it IS your son or daughter’s; what that means is there are other influences added into his contemporary Country mix.  For instance, the single “Craving You” featuring Maren Morris and “Smooth Like the Summer” sound a lot like current Maroon 5 to me; “Sweetheart” has a 50’s, almost doo-wop quality to it; my favorite track in the set, “Kiss Me Like A Stranger” is a soulful track that recalls Player’s 70’s hit “Baby Come Back”; “Leave Right Now” has a bombastic, mild Dubstep to it that brings to mind Imagine Dragons, while “Gateway” has a mild Dancehall-influenced beat to it; then finally, the title track waxes philosophical: “Ain’t it funny how life changes / You wake up, ain’t nothing the same and life changes / You can’t stop it, just hop on the train and / You never know what’s gonna happen / You make your plans and you hear God laughing”.  Elsewhere, it is largely slick contemporary Country; he does get back to his roots on “Drink a Little Beer” which features his dad Rhett Akins, “Marry Me”, and “When You Look Like That”.  For me, it’s OK… perhaps a little too safe and mainstream for my tastes, and if you want traditional Country, you’re probably not gonna find this album to float your boat; Thomas has his sights set on crossover appeal.  Here is the video for “Craving You”…

 

 

Lizz Wright “Grace

For her sixth album, Georgia native Wright takes us back to her roots, a rural America that she felt the need to reconnect with, one that she thought she may have lost touch with, given the current political landscape and the divide it’s created.  She has always used the fabric of her upbringing, as the daughter of a minister, to be the connector through which her songs attain a certain cohesiveness.  Initially labelled a jazz singer, she is more in tune with the singer-songwriter milieu- often considered a bookend to Norah Jones, and a younger contemporary to Cassandra Wilson- blending elements of Folk/Country, Soul, Blues, Rock and Gospel into the mix; the result is a soothing musical backdrop for her luscious contralto.  In particular, and probably due to the personal nature of this project, the spirituality aspect is more prevalent than others here, hence the album title.  It is mostly covers of other’s songs, ranging from Ray Charles (“What Would I Do Without You”) to Bob Dylan (“Every Grain of Sand”) to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“Singing In My Soul”) to Nina Simone (“Seems I’m Never Tired Loving You”) and Allen Toussaint (“Southern Nights”); a beautiful rendition of the Jazz standard “Stars Fell On Alabama”, and one original composition (“All the Way Here”).  Another treat is her keyboardist Kenny Banks’ use of the B3 Hammond Organ,  an instrument you don’t hear too much anymore (unless you’re in church).  Lizz is an underrated and underappreciated talent who is currently on tour (not coming my way, unfortunately) – if you have the chance, go see her live; if not, pick up this album, put it on, sit back, and let it take you away…. Enjoy a live version of “Seems I’m Never Tired Loving You”…

 

 

QUICK HIT:  Robert Plant “Carry Fire

One of the greatest voices in Rock history returns with a new set.  Some people still expect “Dazed and Confused” or “Rock and Roll” era Robert, but he is now 69 years old – his voice sounds weary and tired, and the songs are mellower and more mature-sounding, but it didn’t diminish the quality of the music- it is still quality product from a musical legend.  Check out the track “The May Queen”…

 

Ledisi “Let Love Rule

When I first heard the lead single off of the sixth major label album (8th overall) from New Orleans-born Ledisi, I thought “Uh-oh, they got her- she’s fallen into the Trap”.  The single “High” is essentially a Trap track, a noted departure from the neo-soul stylings we’ve come to expect from her.  Happily though, that was a one track aberration- not that the track itself is bad, it isn’t- was just reeeallly praying that she didn’t fall all the way into the Trap for this album.  I decided when it was time to do a full listen, I invited one of her biggest fans- namely, my wife- in to check it out with me.  Her review: I really dig it; she brings out the girlie in me.  My review (contd):  The first half of the album is more contemporary R&B, starting with a couple of social statements in the reggae-ish “Shot Down” and the danceable “Let Love Rule” (I was hoping she had covered Lenny Kravitz’ track of the same name, but this is a different song).  There are short spoken word interludes interspersed throughout the first half from Iyanla Vanzant and Soledad O’Brien; starting with the sparse “Forgiveness”, she returns back to her neo-soul leanings for most of the rest of the disc.  BJ the Chicago Kid joins her for “Us4ever” and John Legend duets with her on “Give You More”.  By the time she closed with “If You Don’t Mind”, she had restored my faith that she was still the Ledisi I loved… here is the video for “High”…

 

 

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark  “The Punishment of Luxury

One of the musical collections I’ve recently sought to complete and convert to CD is the music of this band- at least the first chapter of their career.  This British duo of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys started way back in 1978, releasing their sparse, analog synth, Kraftwerk-influenced self-titled debut two years later.  And over that first chapter, which covered seven albums, their sound evolved into an accessible synth-pop formula that spelled commercial success, and ultimately, their demise after 1986’s “Pacific Age.  McCluskey carried on the OMD name alone after Humphrey’s departure for the second chapter of the group, releasing three albums, before officially disbanding the group in ’96.  This third and latest chapter to the group began in 2006, when Humphrey rejoined McCluskey, and they began touring and writing new music; “The Punishment of Luxury” is the third album in this latest chapter, and 13th studio album overall.  It continues a return to their musical roots started with 2013’s “English Electric”, updating the sound to the latest technology, yet keeping some of the sparse elements of their original sound; it also bridges the sound evolution witnessed throughout that first chapter, adding some measure of accessibility, yet retaining some experimentation, as well.  The songs are loosely wedded to themes of anti-consumerism (title track, “Isotope”, “Robot Man”, “Precision & Decay”), a topic recently tackled by Arcade Fire’s latest album (which I reviewed last issue), and erosion of the human spirit, especially where it pertains to personal relationships (“What Have We Done”, “As We Open, So We Close”, “One More Time”).  The sound is vintage OMD, and I, for one, am glad to have them back; check out the video for the title track…

 

 

QUICK HIT:  Kamasi Washington “Harmony of Difference

After hittin’ us with a triple CD, nearly three hour debut, his follow up is an EP of just six tracks, all with one word titles, intended as a continuous suite that ‘explores the philosophical possibilities of the musical technique known as counterpoint’.  It was premiered as part of an art festival, which included an exhibit from his sister.  The six tracks fit into just 32 minutes, and with the exception of the sprawling, 13 minute finale, are straight to the point melodically.  Very pleasing… here is the video (actually a mini movie) for the long track, entitled “Truth”…

 

 

Darius Rucker “When Was the Last Time” 

Before I go into what I thought about the latest album from one of South Carolina’s favorite sons, I must confess that I’ve never found any of his previous music, whether solo, or as part of Hootie & the Blowfish, to be pleasing to my ears.  Then there have been the issues with him not appearing to identify more with his own- he’s sometimes made Bryant Gumbel look like Spike Lee in comparison to him, and that he has, for the most part, remained apolitical with his music.  I did learn that Hootie & ‘em made a track called “Drowning” from their “Cracked Rear View” album that was a protest song against the flying of the Confederate Flag on the SC State House grounds; I’ll give him a pass for that, but like one of my other Country darlings, Valerie June, he prefers to just stick to the music.  I‘d like to see him make some sort of statement- heck, if Drive-By Truckers can do it, Ben Harper can do it, Rhiannon Giddens can do a whole album based off of slave narratives – and she’s married to an Irishman – so can he.  I know it’d be taking a risk – both Harper and the Truckers have received some negative backlash on their politics from their largely white, Conservative fanbase- but some things have to be said, IF you feel them.  All that aside, I really wanna like this guy, so I decided to give this, his seventh solo effort overall, a listen (fifth Country album- his first solo album was actually an R&B project using Jill Scott’s production team, and he also has a Christmas album).  The first half of the album didn’t do much for me musically – kinda of like Hootie with a twang- lyrically, it’s more interesting, and this is where you’ll find the two radio-ready singles from the album: “If I Told You” gauges a love interest’s level of interest if they knew about his past; and “For the First Time”, the song from which the album is titled, talks of taking chances in life… “when was the last time you did something for the first time…”  For me, it gets going with the rockin’ collaboration that kicks off the second half- “Straight to Hell” with Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Charles Kelley; this is followed by the string-laden “Another Night with You” and the mildly soulful “Hands On Me”, and finally there is the auto-biographical “Story to Tell”.  This release will be another chart topper for Rucker, I have no doubt, and for that I congratulate him; for me, I found some tracks I like – probably not a purchase, though (at least not the whole album), but I did develop enough of an appreciation of his music to check out his back catalog.  Check out the video for “For the First Time”…

 

 

Odesza “A Moment Apart

For the third album from the darlings of the Sirius XM Chill channel, this Seattle-based electronic duo find themselves more openly exposing one of their primary influences; more so than on their previous releases, I hear elements of “Play” and “18”-era Moby in these tracks- not a bad sound at all to emulate- just not entirely original on their part.  Instead of just using found samples like he did, they often employ the featured live vocalist, as everyone does these days; along for the ride are the likes of Regina Spektor (“Just A Memory”), Naomi Wild (“Higher Ground”), and Soul singer Leon Bridges (“Across the Room”), among others.  At their best, they produce celestial, dreamy electronic dance tracks (“Late Nights”), moody headnoddaz (“Boy”), a little electronic pop (“Line of Sight”), and headphone swirlers (“Thin Floors and Tall Ceilings”).  There is enough variety to keep you interested from start to finish… in addition to their great music, they produce equally beautiful videos… check out the videos for “Across the Room”, which I recently posted to my Facebook page…

 

and “Line of Sight”…

 

 

QUICK HIT:  Fantasia “Christmas After Midnight

In a mostly Jazz setting, Fantasia covers familiar holiday standards that have been done ad nauseum; she also covers some treasured R&B holiday songs.  She does well enough with both the standards and R&B songs, although some tracks should be off-limits: if I wanna hear “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto”, I’ll stick with the James Brown original.  And I wish no one else attempts to cover “This Christmas”, as only the original Donny Hathaway version matters.  Here is an audio clip of her covering “Merry Christmas, Baby”…

 

 

Ella Fitzgerald & The London Symphony Orchestra “Someone to Watch Over Me

To coincide with the Centennial celebration of the birth of Ella, Verve has released another new compilation of her music.  (BIG sigh) I’m not sure how I feel about this project…… wait… yes I am… my question, again, to those making the decisions at Verve Records, is simply WHY???  Just like Capitol/EMI keeps doing with the Beatles catalog, the folks at Verve are simply trying to milk the buying public into purchasing stuff they already own, with a couple of new twists.  This project is totally unnecessary.  Sure, it’s nice to hear the current King of Vocal Jazz, the magnificent Gregory Porter, singing along with Ella for “People Will Say We’re In Love”, but it’s not like this duet actually ever happened… and the inclusion of the LSO on top of these finished tracks give them a slightly different sound, but they were already perfect in their original incarnation… and you don’t mess with perfection!  As I mentioned in my “Ellabration” of her with my August blog article, they need to release their four “Complete Decca Singles” compilations on CD, instead of just on streaming sites… and, in my opinion, they should not have released this album at all.

 


 

I Want My Daddy’s Records!                                             blindmellowjellyjr

This is a new feature that I’ll run occasionally to review classic albums from my father’s collection.  Of course, the title theme is from the iconic episode of Sanford & Son, where Fred donates some old Blues 78’s to a library, until he realizes what they’re worth – then he develops a scheme to get them back.  Now if you have somehow managed to have never seen this episode, you can see it at this link…..

 

Ray Charles “What’d I Say

This was the fifth album Ray released for Atlantic Records; released in 1959, it is a collection of 10 tracks recorded at different sessions, some dating back as far as ’52, but most being recorded between ’57 and ’59.  This album is noteworthy for containing his first Top 10 hit, that being the title track.  The standout track for me on this album is its’ lone instrumental, “Rockhouse Pts 1 & 2”, a track that’s true to its’ name -it rocks the house!  Of the two early tracks, “Jumpin’ In the Mornin’” is a high energy Jump Blues, while “Roll With My Baby” features a sly-sounding Ray over a smooth jazzy Blues melody.  This album, as a stand-alone item, is not easy to find in any format; I purchased a Japanese CD pressing through Amazon.  My dad’s original album sits in good condition in the basement of the family home.  Here is an audio clip for “Rockhouse Pts 1 & 2”…

The Baker’s Dozen

45 rpm adapter

Issue #4  September 2017

 

It’s been a while since my last issue of reviews (five months to be exact), but a lot has happened during that period: first off, I landed myself in the hospital over the Easter weekend, suffering a pulmonary embolism, and scaring my family, especially my eight months pregnant wife, to death.  Of course, I recovered, and welcomed my baby boy Miles into the world a month later.  As might be expected from such a long layoff from the blog, a couple of the reviews date back to the Spring of the year, but even if you’ve read other reviews of some of these albums, you haven’t read my spin on them…

In previous issues, I’ve expressed my disdain for the streaming music phenomenon; however, I’ve learned how to get the most out of it for me.  Thanks to a couple of my brothers from other mothers, I‘ve managed to wade through much of the mierda to get to some good stuff: through my fellow maestro Myron H., I was introduced to Spotify; since they offer a FREE account – all I have to do is endure the occasional commercial interruption every few tracks – I can listen to everything they have on the site.   And from there, if I wish to own the music, I’ll visit a bricks and mortar store, or at the very least, download it from iTunes and rip it to a CD…. So finally, I was able to hear the Grammy-winning Chance the Rapper, and the Grammy-nominated Kanye West albums… I’ve been introduced to several of the albums being reviewed in this issue by my brotha, a couple of them being high recommendations.  He and I go back like old Cadillac seats, and we’ve been turning each other on to new music for more than 25 years; perhaps I can convince him to contribute to Now Hear This!…  also, my man Luiz Groove, who I can credit with my introduction to Rhiannon Giddens, and by association, much of the Roots music I now enjoy.  Now we go waaay back, like a Giancarlo Stanton home run, all the way to high school… it’s good to have other ears that discover the best music out there on my side… so, let’s get to this baker’s dozen of reviews…


REVIEWS

 

Arcade Fire “Everything Now

So there was a lot of buildup to the release of this album, all generated by the group; I happened to miss all of it, and I’m glad I did, for it may have negatively influenced my perception of the main event – the album itself.  I’ve read other reviews of this album, and frankly, they have been mixed; I think that is because, for some that have followed this Montreal, PQ group since its’ early days, this album finds them starting to lose their edge.  For me, I first encountered them four years ago, when they appeared on Saturday Night Live promoting the “Reflektor” album with an elaborate performance that took them out of the studio where SNL takes place, to another venue.  That double disc probably lasted too long (I don’t know that, even as of today, I have ever fully listened to disc 2), but the first disc was quite strong; this release is a single disc, clocking in around 48 minutes, which is probably just long enough.  It begins and ends with the interludes for the title track – so, if you play the CD from start to finish, you will end with the interlude, and circle back to the beginning interlude, which then leads you into the Abba-esque pop disco title track.  The album’s theme appears to be their cynical take on American consumerism and all of its’ excesses – for a musical parallel (I have a couple of these in this issue), I reach back to the one and only album by punk group X-Ray Spex, the 1977 “Germ Free Adolescents”, which was also based on consumerism.  And lead singer Win Butler sounds an awful lot like Simple Minds lead singer Jim Kerr on several of the tracks… Arguably the album’s strongest track, “Signs Of Life” reminds me of French disco group Martin Circus’ legendary “Disco Circus”, with its’ handclap pattern; elsewhere, you have two songs with the same name, the punky “Infinite Content”, which leads into the country-fied kitsch of “Infinite_Content”; there’s the crazy reggae of “Peter Pan”, the electro “Creature Comfort”, the alien funk of “Electric Blue”, and the somber closer “We Don’t Deserve Love”.  I’ll lean towards the positive in my overall assessment of the album- it’s not perfect, but I enjoy it quite a bit – guess I’m just weird that way… check out the video for “Everything Now”…

 

Chronixx “Chronology

This young man has been around for several years, releasing singles to critical acclaim in his native Jamaica; but “Chronology” marks the proper debut for the 24 year-old, whose birth name is Jamar McNoughton (gotta love those guys named Jamar… winkwink!).  And what a debut it is- from the opening track “Spanish Town”, a celebratory track about his hometown, Chronixx treats us to a tour de force of reggae, dancehall and other styles –  reggae purists may be put off by some of the pop and R&B-influenced sounds, but you cannot deny good music, regardless of what it is.  “Ghetto Paradise” fits in with the hip-hop flava of Stephen and Jr. Gong Marley; the wonderful “I Can” is a mid-tempo EDM stomper that could be a staple on gospel radio with its’ inspirational message; “Skankin’ Sweet” is the perfect summertime reggae party jam; “Majesty” is a lovers rock celebration of the black woman; “Smile Jamaica” is a breezy one-drop analogy of his homeland as his favorite girl; conscious messages fuel “Haile Selassie Children” and “Black is Beautiful”, while current single “Likes” delivers a message about using social media… “dweet fi di love, me nuh dweet fi di likes…” He uses wonderful phrasing, showing off both singing, sing-jay and classic deejay skills on his tracks, and the variety of styles make him crossover ready.  Remember how hot Shaggy’s 2000 album “Hotshot” was back then?  This one has a chance to duplicate that success, if given the airplay it deserves – it is THAT good.  Check out the gorgeous video for “Majesty”

 

Imagine Dragons “Evolve

The latest album from this Las Vegas-based quartet reminds me, in its’ bombast, of the first time I heard the second Tears for Fears album “Songs from the Big Chair” – anthemic songs and big production. The parallel with that album continues in its transition from a somewhat darker place that was resident on previous releases to one that’s lighter, and more positive- TFF had a similar transition, from the darker territory of their 1983 debut “The Hurting”- hence, the album’s title “Evolve” acknowledges that transition for Imagine Dragons.  This album finds them embracing electronics a little more, but still producing arena-ready pop with an edge.  Songs like “Believer”, “Whatever it Takes”, “Walking the Wire”, “Thunder”, and other tracks point towards the more positive vibe.  Seems to me, you could put this disc on during a corporate meeting and let the messages flow; in this world, positive motivation’s not a bad thing at all… Here’s the video for “Thunder”…

 

Mali Music “The Transition of Mali

Speaking of transition and evolution, here is the fourth album from 29 year old Savannah, GA-based singer/songwriter whose birth name is  Kortney Jamaal Pollard.  So Mali is considered to be a Gospel singer in the new school tradition, wrapping his sanctified musings in a secular blanket – he considers himself neither a Gospel, nor a Soul/Hip-hop artist, merely a singer/songwriter whose songs mostly happen to be about God.  With this album, he appears to be transitioning beyond just writing inspirational tunes, and adding some songs about love and relationships – in other words, moving more into a secular realm; this hasn’t sat well with some members of the Christian community, who are thinking Mali has lost his way, or selling out. Personal opinion (don’t crucify me!): one shouldn’t live just listening to Gospel music; the subject matter is always the same -branch out a little.  Not saying to go out and listen to the raunchiest Hip-hop you can find, but give yourself a little BALANCE! … anyway, so he invites sexy songstress Jhene Aiko to join him on “Contradiction”, a song about ex-lovers who leave room for a possible reconciliation; Jazmine Sullivan appears on the lush “Loved By You”; the classic ballad “Still” puts him in Tyrese territory.  He has, in no way however, forgotten his bread ‘n butter: the first single “Gonna Be Alright” tells us on keep on pushin’ when the going gets tough; “Sit Down for This” is simply a message from God; the closing track “What You Done” is his song of gratitude to the Creator.  Now, he also puts his spin on everyday matters, like on “Dolla”, where he basically says to make the money, but don’t let the money make you- the ‘money as the root of all evil’ message there.   This is a project that varies the experience, one that should reach a larger audience; there’s nothing wrong with transition, evolution, growth, and expansion… Check out the video for “Gonna Be Alright”…

 

Kendrick Lamar “DAMN.

When I reviewed his last full album “To Pimp a Butterfly”, I not only anointed it as the best hip-hop album of 2015, but also mentioned that it was probably his magnum opus, that he would never better it.  And with this release, the proper followup, he did not exceed that one- but he’s not too far off, either; he’s coming from a completely different angle this time around, though.  On the last album, he wrote from the spirit of empowerment, uplifting his people, and figuring out how to handle his newfound notoriety and fame; on this album, he’s done an about-face, and that earlier spirit has been replaced with one of disillusionment, betrayal, and acknowledgement of himself as being at the top of the Hip-hop heap. A running theme through several tracks is that he feels like he’s alone in his journey and that no one has his back or best interests at heart, declaring “nobody’s praying for me”; on “ELEMENT.” A song directed at haters and imitators, he first makes this declaration, adding “last LP I tried to lift the black artists / but it’s a difference between black artists and wack artists…”  On “FEEL.” He again mentions the “Nobody’s praying…” line, and he appears to sum up his entire mood on the album here:

I feel like a chip on my shoulders / I feel like I’m losin’ my focus / I feel like I’m losin’ my patience / I feel like my thoughts in the basement / Feel like, I feel like you’re miseducated / Feel like I don’t wanna be bothered / I feel like you may be the problem / I feel like it ain’t no tomorrow, fuck the world / The world is endin’, I’m done pretendin’ / And fuck you if you get offended / I feel like friends been overrated / I feel like the family been fakin’ / I feel like the feelings are changin’ / Feel like my daughter compromised and jaded / Feel like you wanna scrutinize how I made it / Feel like I ain’t feelin’ you all / Feel like removin’ myself, no feelings involved…

Elsewhere, on “LOYALTY.”, his duet with Rihanna, he questions the concept with friends and family; on “LOVE.”, similar scenario, directed at his boo.  Religious imagery abounds as well: “YAH.” is supposedly speaking of Yahweh, a Hebrew name for God; in “GOD.” he actually addresses those who wrongfully look upon themselves with a supreme-being complex.  On “XXX.”, he teams up with U2’s Bono for a track pairing both religious and sociopolitical imagery: “Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph / The great American flag / Is wrapped and dragged with explosives / Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters / Barricaded blocks and borders / Look what you taught us…”  I suspect so as not to draw attention to this track, he named it cryptically, instead of something like “AMERICA.”  This is a deep album, Kung Fu Kenny has a lot to say, and he unabashedly expresses himself; I appreciate his talent, and will agree with him that there’s no one out there on his level (that I’m aware of, anyway)… Check out the video for ”LOYALTY.”…

 

Chris Stapleton “From A Room: Volume 1

The second solo album from the man some are crediting with bringing back real Country music; this is the first part of a duology, with the second half coming later this year.  Longtime Country music fans have said Chris walks in the outlaw footsteps of the likes of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash; I haven’t been a big fan of Country throughout my life, so I’ll take the word of those who know about that.  What I DO know is I dig this album!   It is relatively brief, clocking in at 32 minutes and change, but it is time well-spent, for the Kentucky native shows off the songwriting skills that have translated into hits he’s penned for others, as well as fueled the success for his breakthrough 2015 solo debut “Traveller”.  For me, the standout track here is the pleading Country Blues of “I Was Wrong”; he displays some strong pipes with a lot of soul in ‘em, and packs enough emotion into it that you truly feel he’s sorry for trying to cast the woman away.  Other strong tracks include his story of a woman who doesn’t believe he’s mended his ways (“Up to No Good Livin”); his ode to the pleasures of getting high (“Them Stems”); the confessions of a man about to face his executioner (“Death Row”); and advice for a woman should she decide to leave him (“Second One to Know”).  I’m waiting for the second part of this… in the meantime, enjoy the audio for “I Was Wrong” – you’ll see what I’m talking about…

 

Patti LaBelle “Bel Hommage

When I heard Patti was recording a jazz album, I have to admit my curiosity was a little piqued.  For people that know me, that will seem a bit unusual,  as although I’m a fan of jazz, I’ve never been a big fan of Patti LaBelle’s music.  For me, she has always been over the top, from the extreme style of the group that bore her name in the 70’s, and throughout her solo career; I’m a guy who, though I appreciate the virtuosity which she can bring to a melody (I’m a musician, so I HAVE to appreciate it), sometimes though, I’d like her to just get up, sing the song, and drop the mike.  So, when I listened to this new album, I was initially pleasantly surprised to find a more restrained Patti – maybe too restrained, I wasn’t used to it.  I have to remember that she is in her early 70’s, so maybe she’s toning it down in her later years; I have no doubt she still has the chops, but what people are accustomed to getting from her takes a lot of energy, and at this stage of the game, maybe it’s just not there anymore.  As for the album itself, it’s not bad, just underwhelming… a rather mundane reading of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain”… a song called “Peel Me A Grape”; “I Can Cook” sounds like an audio resume to apply for a show on the Food Network, and then there’s a preachy song called “Go to Hell”.  It started off good with “The Jazz in You” , followed shortly thereafter by a nice reading of “Moanin'”, and I was excited to hear the rest, but by the time she closed with the reflective “Here’s to Life”, I was ready for it to be over.  Still, it’s a pleasing enough diversion from the norm for her to warrant a listen… there are those fans for whom Patti is to them what Ella Fitzgerald is to me, so anything she does is gold to them.  And maybe I was wrong about wanting her to show restraint- she didn’t put enough ‘typical Patti’ into several of these tracks- it would’ve made a big difference.  Here’s a clip of her performing “The Jazz In You” on the View…

 

Zeshan B “Vetted

If you drive for a while down Devon Ave in Chicago, you will pass through several ethnic and religious enclaves, from Hassidic Jew to Eastern European, African to Indian, both Hindu and Muslim, as well as Christian – many of these cultures intersect and intermingle – peacefully, I might add.  From this environment comes Zeshan Bagewadi, a first generation Indian-American Muslim with a love for classic Soul music inherited from his father.  His debut album was recorded in Memphis, TN at Ardent Studios, which has seen some Soul greats pass through its’ doors; his backing band includes several veterans of the scene.  Over the album’s 11 tracks, he sings some original compositions, and covers some Soul gems of the past: “Cryin’ In the Streets” is a cover of a 1970 Civil Rights protest anthem by George Perkins; “Ain’t No Love (in the Heart of the City)” is a classic 1974 Bobby “Blue” Bland tune that he covers reverently; “Hard Road to Travel” is a Jimmy Cliff tune from 1969.  He also sings in three languages, English, Urdu and Punjabi, and plays the harmonium, a kind of portable organ with a pump mechanism similar to an accordion- it’s an instrument the Beatles used during the “Rubber Soul” and later sessions, and is popular in Indian music genres today.  Overall, the album succeeds not just in the novelty of the artist, but it’s a very credible and satisfying classic Soul album-  with some curry sauce; Zeshan B is a new voice to check out.  Here’s the video for “Cryin’ In the Streets”, shot all over the Chicago area.

 

Toro y Moi “Boo Boo

Latest album from Columbia, SC native Chaz Bundick is another adventure in lo-fi ambient funk, or so-called chillwave, a style he helped pioneer at the beginning of the decade.  A prolific songwriter and producer now residing in Berkeley, CA, this is his fifth album since 2010; he has even more stuff out there, as he records under various other pseudonyms, as well.  This joint is described by Chaz as a break-up album, and it has a heavy 1980’s aesthetic going for it – you can hear it with the analog synths, and especially in the percussion – took me back to the heyday of 4AD and dreampop- this from a guy who was born in ’86.  Funky moments like the opening track “Mirage” and “Inside My Head” are tempered with the ambient washes provided by “Pavement” or “Embarcadero“; there is straight-ahead pop like “Mona Lisa” or “Labyrinth“, while tracks like “Windows“, “No Show“, “A Girl Like You“, or the single “You and I” could fit in with the Alt-soul crowd.  Whatever you want to call his music (and it would be hard to pigeonhole this guy), call it good.  Some folks sampling his music may try to dismiss him as some left-field Weeknd knockoff, but he is so much more than that.  Check out the video for “You and I”…

 

SZA “Ctrl

The first time I listened to the debut album from 26 year old St. Louis native Solana Rowe aka SZA, I really couldn’t relate to it- it seemed to be slow and brooding musically, and she seemed to be singing about a lot of stupid stuff; strangely enough, I wanted to listen to it again.  Before I listened to it the next time, I happened across an interview with three women, who talked about how they so profoundly connected with this project; it was then that I realized a couple of things: 1.) I’m not part of the target demographic- mid-20’s women (particularly women of color); and 2.) I didn’t NEED to be part of that demographic, I needed to meet her where she is at this time in her life.  It’s a place where we’ve all been, a place in time in our lives where we’re trying to find our way, to figure it all out.  And so, with those revelations at hand, I sat down with the music, and listened again; the second time, I got it.  This album is essentially an audio journal of a young woman’s life, her forays into the arena of love and relationships; it is intensely personal, brutally honest (almost to a fault), and vulnerable yet empowering.  And now the music, which is still for the most part slow and brooding Alt-soul (what I like to call ‘millennial trip-hop’), fits the lyrics.  Pharrell Williams provides background vocals for “Supermodel”, she invites mumble-mouth rapper Travis Scott to join her on the single “Love Galore”, and Kendrick Lamar guests on “Doves In the Wind”.  She seems to have a nice voice, one that’s somewhat under-utilized given the style of music she’s doing- she lists jazz vocalists Ella and Billie, along with the likes of Bjork, as vocal influences- yet she effectively uses it in the Alt-soul milieu.  Now that I’ve got it, you should get it too…  Check out the video for “Love Galore”, a steamy video with a horror movie ending…

 

Jamiroquai “Automaton

I remember it like it was just yesterday when DJ Chuck Wren first played “When You Gonna Learn” on his ‘Moods & Grooves’ show on college radio station WNUR, and going absolutely crazy over the song; hard to believe that was 25 years ago, and that this song holds more relevance today than it did then.  So this, their eighth album, was released at the end of March in the UK, and was scheduled for a domestic release then as well, but appears to have been indefinitely shelved, in part, due to the death of longtime songwriter and original member Toby Smith; it is available via download sources like iTunes, and streaming sources like Spotify.  The album is typical Jamiroquai, although they sound a bit stripped down instrumentally on some tracks, and the sound is more electronically-oriented – like frontman Jay Kay has been studying the playbook of disco legend Giorgio Moroder, and by extension, the recent success of Daft Punk.  One thing I did notice is, perhaps for the first time on record, some of the tracks are constructed as if they are playing them live- if you’ve ever attended a Jamiroquai concert (I saw them the first two times they toured in the 90’s), they liked to go off on musical tangents right in the middle of a song (that’s how they were able to perform a 2 ½ hour concert off the strength of just one album), and several tracks employ that aesthetic here.  Jay still has the penchant for wearing goofy headgear, and even now, at 47 years of age, is still a very energetic stage presence.  It is overall a funky dance affair pretty much from start to finish, and although they’ve never topped their debut “Emergency on Planet Earth” (and never will), this is essential to your Jamiroquai collection.  Here’s the video for the single, “Cloud 9”…

 

Somi “Petite Afrique”

For her second major label release (and sixth album overall), the 36 year-old Champaign, IL native and daughter of Ugandan and Rwandan parents, follows up her critically-acclaimed 2013 album “The Lagos Music Salon” with a homage to her current home base, Harlem; in particular, the section along West 116th St, which is mainly settled by West African immigrants and known as Little Africa (hence the album title).  She is being hailed as the Nina Simone for this generation; her style owes as much to the singer-songwriter genre as it does to the African-influenced Jazz that is at its’ core.  The album is interspersed with conversational interludes she’s had with residents, friends and family, and is loosely focused on the effects of immigrating to an area that has people who look like them, but aren’t always accepting of them, and addresses the gentrification occurring in Harlem.  Aloe Blacc appears on “The Gentry”, with the lyric “The gentry came, I can’t play drums no more / Said that’s not what their good money’s for / The gentry came, oh the gentry came / the gentry came, now I might lose my home / and every soul that I’ve ever known…”  On “Alien”, Somi sings “I’m an alien / I’m a legal alien / I’m an African in New York…”;  and on “Black Enough”, she sings of the existing tensions between the immigrant and native communities : “Am I black enough for you / they could shoot my children too / it doesn’t matter how you see me / we’re still running like the old days / even if I’m not from here / green cards don’t save ya / I still look just like your mama / hands up don’t shoot…”  The album is lovingly crafted as a celebration of the immigrant experience, and it’s a journey we should all take, if only to view from the lens of those who live it… check out the audio for “Black Enough”…

 

Ozomatli “Non-Stop: Mexico to Jamaica

For their eighth studio album, L.A.-based Ozomatli decided to dig into the canon of Mexican musical classics, and give them a Caribbean feel.  So you hire a legendary duo in Sly & Robbie, who’s produced a varied set of artists, from the best days of Black Uhuru and Grace Jones to Dylan, the Stones, and No Doubt, and have them help put a reggae spin on the tracks; the result is this enjoyable set of Reggae, Ska and Rocksteady from the band.  They invite a number of friends to the party, including Herb Alpert on “Besame Mucho”; Slightly Stoopid pops in for the first single “La Bamba”; Juanes collaborates with them on “El Noa Noa”, G-Love contributes to “Land of 1000 Dances”, and the Mariachi Divas do their thing on “Volver Volver”.  Elsewhere, they also cover Santana (“Evil Ways”) and Redbone (“Come and Get Your Love”), among others.  I dare you not to dance while listening to this album… you won’t be able to resist…  Check out this live medley of a few tracks from the album…

It’s An ELLA-bration!

Issue #3  August 2017

  • In this issue: The Ella Fitzgerald Centennial celebration

  • Reviews:  Regina Carter, new Ella reissues

 


Beginning on April 25th, 2017, the jazz world embarked on a year-long celebration of the Centennial birth of the greatest jazz singer (living or dead) of ALL time, Ella Fitzgerald;  around the country, events have been taking place to commemorate the 100th birthday of the First Lady of Song.  In my mind, she is incomparable, a naturally gifted vocalist, one with near perfect tune, tone, and diction, and there will never be another like her. How I came to love Ella.  It happened quite by accident, actually.  In the early 90’s, I would set my alarm clock to a radio station I didn’t ordinarily listen to, but did so because I wanted to avoid some loud, shouting morning jock jarring me from my slumber; instead, I set my alarm to so-called smooth jazz 95.5 WNUA Chicago.  The disc jockey at 6:30 in the morning was current Chicago media personality Dean Richards, and he had a tendency to play some Ella around the time my alarm went off; I was often treated to soothing Ella songs like “Azure” or “In a Sentimental Mood” from the Duke Ellington Songbook.  These tracks eased me into the transition from sleep to preparation to fight Lake Shore Drive traffic and endure another day of managing reps talking to people about their satellite dish service.  The morning experiences soon prompted me to purchase my first Ella album, “Swings Gently with Nelson”, one of a couple of collaborations she did with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, somewhere around 1991.  The rest, as they say, is history, as I own almost EVERY studio and live recording she ever did over the course of a career that spanned six decades (I thought I had everything, but more on that later).  My studio album collection was incomplete until May of this year, when I was able to secure the last one of hers I didn’t own – the “Misty Blue” album, which is a collection of covers of Country songs she did for Capitol in the late 60’s; thanks to Scratch ‘n Spin Records in West Columbia, SC for my copy of that one.

My favorite Ella by period. 

Decca Years (1934-55)  Ella was just 17 years old when she began recording, and the stuff she was given to sing during her early years was a lot of vapid, novelty songs- and that includes her signature song “A Tisket a Tasket”; while the songs themselves were nothing more than fluff, they were sufficient for Ella to showcase her extraordinary talent.  She was the featured vocalist of the Chick Webb Orchestra, until the bandleader passed in 1939; Ella took over bandleader duties until she dissolved the group and embarked on a solo career in 1942.  From there, she collaborated with a variety of orchestras and groups, including the Benny Carter Orchestra, the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan, Ellis Larkin, and Dizzy Gillespie.  It was also during these years that the Swing Era gave way to Bebop, and here is where Ella began growing in the area of jazz improvisation.  Her first proper album, “Ella Sings Gershwin”, was released in 1950, while subsequent albums “Lullabies of Birdland” and “For Sentimental Reasons” compiled prior singles that were released on 78 rpm vinyl during the late 40’s to early 50’s.  These two albums compiled sides cut with various orchestras – the material was stronger, and her skills really began to blossom during this time.  Overall, nine albums were released during this period; all of this is from the Post-Swing and Bebop periods- I count all of this material as her finest of the Decca years.  The Swing stuff , all of which was released on 78’s, would eventually be released on CD as part of various Decca reissues.  Here is a track recorded by a 19 ear old Ella with the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1936- remember, there was no television yet, so you get to see a 78 rpm record spinning…

 

Verve Years (1956-1966)  When Ella hooked up with producer Norman Granz, her career took off.  He created for her the Songbook series, where she interpreted the songs of the top composers of the time, such as The Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hart.  To my ears, the standout Songbook she interpreted was the book of Duke Ellington- released in 1957, the triple album produced many wonderful tracks, and showed all sides of Ella, from the plaintive, reflective side, to the scatting, voice as an instrument side.  Also released in ’57 was her third collaboration with Louis Armstrong, the sublime “Porgy & Bess”;  on paper, her silky smooth delivery paired with his sandpaper, gravelly vocals shouldn’t have seemed to work, but it was an incredible combination when put together.  In 1960, one of her live albums produced one of her signature tracks – her rendition of “Mack the Knife”; also in ’60, she released arguably two of her most romantic albums, “Hello Love” and “The Intimate Ella” (this one was originally known as “Let No Man Write My Epitaph”, from the movie in which she appeared).  In 1963, she paired with the legendary Count Basie for “Ella & Basie”, and in ’65, paired again with Ellington  for “Ella at Duke’s Place”.  Overall, Ella released 34 studio and live albums in this period.  Of course, the mid 1960’s witnessed the British Invasion, rock ‘n roll was gaining a strong foothold in popular music, and Ella began trying to interpret (in her style), current pop hits from the likes of the Beatles; as the so-called ‘Now Sound’ began replacing Jazz as popular music, her popularity began to wane a bit, and ultimately, she and Granz parted company, and her contract with Verve was not renewed.  Here is a live clip of Ella in 1957 doing one of her signature songs, backed by a stellar band…

 

Capitol Years (1967-68)  This was, for the most part, a forgettable period in her career.  This era produced four albums: “Brighten the Corner” was a collection of traditional Christian hymns; “Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas” was a collection of Christmas hymns; the aforementioned “Misty Blue” was a collection of covers of current Country hits; the best of the bunch was “30 by Ella”, a unique and satisfying collection of six five-song jazz medleys.  This period was the beginning of Ella experiencing health problems that would ultimately plague her for the rest of her life.  These issues began to affect her voice, as it became slightly huskier- “30 by Ella” is perhaps the only album where I can say that Ella sounded kinda sexy. Here is a live clip of Ella from 1968 in Europe with the Tee Carson Trio performing an absolutely spine-tingling version of “Summertime”…

 

Reprise Years (1969-70)  An interesting, albeit forgettable period as well, this era produced just two albums, “Ella” and the ominously titled “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”.  Ella dove headfirst into the Now Sound, as both albums covered current pop hits.  Interesting only in her interpretations of well-known pop songs, but otherwise, only a musical completist like me would find these albums essential to their collection. Here is Ella performing a track from the “Things…” album in a duet with Tom Jones in 1970…

 

Pablo Years (1972-89)  Ella reunited with Norman Granz for the launching of his new label, which brought Ella back to traditional Jazz.  She found new collaborators, and reunited with old ones; she also found herself in more intimate settings, often with just her and a lone instrumentalist.  As the years continued to tick away, this sometimes worked for her and against her – Ella continued a health decline that sometimes literally knocked her off her feet, and definitely began to rob her of vocal prowess- she would spend these 18 years basically adjusting and adapting to the effects of her health issues, making do with whatever she had left.  Early on, these settings allowed her to expand the sonic spectrum beyond her and the accompanying instrument, but in later years, it simply exposed what was left of a voice in serious decline.  Of her new collaborators, the most prominent was guitarist Joe Pass, with whom she did four albums- the first three, 1973’s “Take Love Easy”, 1976’s “Fitzgerald and Pass… Again”, and 1983’s “Speak Love” were among the best of her 22 albums released in this period.  She collaborated with Count Basie two more times, on 1979’s “A Perfect Match” and “A Classy Pair”.  Ella won six of her 10 Grammys during these years; her last album, 1989’s “All That Jazz” brought her the last award. By this time, the vocal tank was virtually empty, but she could still interpret and perform a song in satisfactory fashion – enough to fetch a Grammy! Here is a live clip of her with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1979 doing one of my favorite tracks…

 

Ella’s fight with diabetes cost her both legs in 1993; she passed on June 15, 1996.  She left behind a treasure trove of great music for us to enjoy forever. It’s said that she could sing a nursery rhyme, and I’d buy it… remember, she began her career with a nursery rhyme… and yes, if she sang “Old McDonald Had a Farm”, I’d buy it… in fact, she did actually perform that song on her “Ella in Hamburg” album in the 60’s… and I bought it… and here’s a clip of her doing it…

If there is one regret regarding Ella’s recorded output, is that she never recorded with one of her favorite duet partners- Frank Sinatra.  He absolutely adored Ella, she adored him, and they performed together often on television, but contractual issues kept them from recording together.  Here is a clip of them at the height of their collective powers performing a classic Sinatra tune…

Finally, Ella didn’t write songs, she interpreted them.  And I don’t recall her ever singing anything that was politically charged.  But she did write one song,.. a song in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr…. here’s the audio clip of it…

For information on events commemorating her, you can check out her official website:

http://www.ellafitzgerald.com/

or this link on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/EllaFitzgeraldCentennial/


Reviews

 

Regina Carter “Ella- Accentuate the Positive”

Newest album from jazz violinist extraordinaire Carter was released to coincide with the centennial birthdate. For the Detroit native’s 10th solo album, she throws a bit of a curve with the song selection.  One would think a tribute album to Ella would contain all of the familiar stuff we know from her- she has covered Ella in the past, doing “A Tisket a Tasket” on her splendid 2006 album “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey“; instead of taking the well-worn path, she decided to do a bit of a deep dive into her vast catalog, and unearth some gems that even I didn’t know about – meaning: she (un)covered some stuff I don’t currently own.  Let’s do a song-by-song inventory of the album tracks and their Ella origins….

“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”  Track from Ella’s 1961 album “Ella Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook”, vocals provided on this track by Miche Braden.

“Crying In the Chapel”  Track she performed with the Ray Charles Singers; released in 1953 as the B-side to “When the Clock Pray at Midnight”.  Released as a 78 rpm single.

“I’ll Never Be Free”  Track she performed with Louis Jordan; released in 1950 as the B-side to “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”.  Released as a 78 rpm single.

“All My Life”   An early Ella track, recorded with the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1936 and released as a 78 rpm single.

“Dedicated to You”  Track she recorded with the Mills Brothers; released as a 78 rpm single in 1937.

“Reach for Tomorrow”  Track from the soundtrack to “Let No Man Write My Epitaph”, these tracks were later released as “The Intimate Ella” on Verve Records in 1960.

“Undecided”  Probably the most well-known of all the tracks on this album, this is a 1939 78 rpm Brunswick single Ella performed with the Chick Webb Orchestra.  Vocals on this track were provided by veteran jazz vocalist Carla Cook.

“Judy”  A Hoagy Carmichael song that Ella never recorded; however, it is perhaps the song that launched her singing career, as she performed it at Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1934, winning the $25 top prize that night.

“I’ll Chase the Blues Away”  One of Ella’s earliest recorded tracks, this is a 1935 single she performed with the Chick Webb Orchestra.  Released as a 78 rpm single.

The album is up to Regina’s usual standard of quality, and is presented with the reverence and attention to detail that anything pertaining to the legacy of Ella would rightfully command. And I have to give her a nod of thanks for unearthing some tracks I didn’t know about.. Thank you, Regina, for the deep dive.  Here is the audio for “Undecided“…

 

Ella Fitzgerald: 100 Songs for a Centennial

This 4-CD compilation covers the Decca and Verve years, somehow managing to decide on 100 tracks from her vast catalog to include for this collection. Anyone interested in this set will probably find some songs they would eschew in favor of others, so the track listing is highly subjective… but on the other hand, you can’t go wrong- it’s Ella.

 

The Complete Decca Singles, Vols. 1-4

These sets compile all the singles and B-sides recorded for the Decca label between 1935-55; they include numerous tracks seeing the light of day for the first time since they originally appeared on 78 rpm records.  It is an outstanding collection that has one MAJOR flaw: they are available only as streaming albums!  The good folks at Verve have made a grave mistake by not offering these collections on CD -most of the people who would want this collection would want to BUY AND OWN a copy of the music (didn’t we have this discussion in the last issue of Now Hear This! ???).  Verve wants to get a new generation interested in this great music, and that’s a good move by offering it on Apple Music, Spotify, and others, but most Millennials will forego the opportunity, opting instead for the current thing, whatever it is.  The crowd for Ella is accustomed to albums, tapes and compact discs, and will buy it if made available.  Verve MUST change their way of thinking about this decision, and offer these collections on CD.

 

 

The Best of 2016 (to MY ears)

Last year, I decided to resurrect this music column from an old work newsletter I used to help produce in the 90’s, and I posted a series of columns of my favorite releases of the year to Facebook.

This years’ list finds me continuing to discover little in the way of current music releases to stoke any passion or desire in which to listen.  For me, especially if you are an artist of color, you HAD to have something to say socially, politically, or consciously, in light of the times in which we live, in order to register in my mind -in other words, quoting Millennial black slang, you have to show you’re WOKE.  It’s ‘time out’ for frivolity, gratuitous violence and hyper-sexuality in the lyrics- and all of the other things that justify and reaffirm negative stereotypes; while not forgetting to be yourself, it is time to simply do better and be better.

We lost many musical stars (past and present) last year, many of them musical icons; this has created both a void and a need for new icons to step forward.  So far, precious few artists, in my opinion, have what it takes to take the baton, and move quality music forward to future generations.

Jumping off my soapbox and puttin’ my two cents back in my pocket now, here are my 16 top picks for 2016:

 

ROCK

David Bowie- “Blackstar”  One of several of those aforementioned musical icons lost in 2016, album was released right around the time he died… too bad he didn’t get a chance to witness the love he received for this album, for it is a very good, bold ‘final’ statement – an edgy affair for a 69 year old, but coming from Bowie, you would’ve expected nothing less… check out “Girl Loves Me”…

https://youtu.be/wDCk1X2S00A

Radiohead- “A Moon Shaped Pool”  This is a hauntingly gorgeous, delicately tense, superbly crafted album, as evidenced by the clip for album’s opening track “Burn the Witch” that I included here… this exudes a calmness I haven’t heard since the Cocteau Twins “Victorialand” or most of Harold Budd’s work, or early Durutti Column, but with a bubbling, almost ready to but never exploding sense of edginess to it… this is one I will anoint as a classic now, one to listen to again and again, discovering new subtle nuances each time.

https://youtu.be/yI2oS2hoL0k

Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals- “Call It What It Is”  The reviews on this album from listeners told me what I already knew before I read them: he was gonna lose some of his mostly white fan base because of the title track, a protest song about police brutality in the Black community.  Where he was a great musician, a fine artist, now, in the eyes of some, he’s just another n-word, and his music suddenly sucks.  It didn’t before, and it doesn’t now.  If you’re familiar with his music, it’s a typical Ben Harper album, he’s reunited with the Innocent Criminals, and they did what they’ve always done-  produce quality music.  I applaud Ben for taking a stand; I’ll bet dollars to donuts you won’t hear a peep from Darius Rucker… check out the title track…

https://youtu.be/IjlzXEtOnh8

 

R&B

Myles Sanko- “Just Being Me”   Up ‘n coming talent out of London… has actually been around since about ’11… real acoustic Soul, with real instruments played by actual musicians in a traditional setting, and having a live feel, not like a combination of parts created individually in the studio… he’s been drawing comparisons to the likes of Gil Scott Heron, Bill Withers, and Gregory Porter, among others… check out the video for the title track below…

https://youtu.be/wsvl30YAsWY

Childish Gambino- “Awaken, My Love!”  Can’t blame a man for expanding his sonic footprint… he may have alienated some of his fanbase, who were expecting another rap album… but rapper turned Soul/Funk artist (at least for this album), channeling his inner Funkadelic, Jimmy Castor, Prince, D’Angelo meets Lenny Kravitz… vocally, shows a pretty good range, although occasionally a little shaky in that upper falsetto region… check out the video from his performance of the single “Redbone” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon…

https://youtu.be/ezbsbkqoRrs

John Legend- “Darkness & Light”  The album begins with the following lyric: “They say sing what you know / I’ve sung what they want / some folks do what they’re told / baby this time I won’t…”  Something or somebody dun pissed off Mr. Legend…  it is society that’s done that to him… realizing for all the fame and fortune, that he remains who he is, and that makes him just as susceptible to all the things in life every other man that looks like him has to deal with… the album is produced by Blake Mills, who produced Alabama Shakes “Sound & Color” album, and is sonically similar (also includes a guest appearance from their lead singer Brittany Howard)…. He still manages to weave in moments of love and the requisite tales of sexual conquest between the social commentary… but this is his most important release to date… the song “I Know Better”, from which I pulled the lyrics, can be heard below.

https://youtu.be/CUAbbNmKYtU?list=PLnNcaE74jOysE0QWE1J82eyq4HQDggMOZ

 

JAZZ

Gregory Porter- “Take Me to the Alley”  Having caught this man at the ground floor, before his star began to ascend, having talked to him, taken pix with him, etc, I feel like I know Gregory….  His fourth full-length album and second for major label Blue Note is very good, like the others… but it finds him beginning to veer dangerously close to being mainstream, which is close to just ordinary (and he is an extraordinary talent)… the label is trying to break him to Urban Contemporary radio, enlisting the likes of Kem (and his signature “hey, girl”) and Lalah Hathaway to add vocals to a couple of his tracks… don’t get me wrong, he deserves to be massively successful, but not at the expense of dilution of his quality to appeal to a mass audience… and I fear he’s spreading himself a little thin… I’ve compiled an albums worth of tracks he’s done on other artist’s albums, so he’s in demand (and that’s a good thing)… I just don’t want him to flame out.  Check out the video for “Don’t Lose Your Steam”…

https://youtu.be/EEZyB4Bxrxg

Norah Jones- “Day Breaks”  For her sixth album, Norah returned to her original roots as mellow jazz chanteuse, her music also being informed by pop, folk and country… while I could certainly appreciate her branching out into other areas musically, like alt-rock, this is where she started, and where I found her over a decade ago… and where I like her the best…. I would pay good money to attend if she, labelmate Gregory Porter, and her African-American jazz chanteuse bookend Lizz Wright went on tour together…. Here is “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love”… a track composed by Norah that incorporates the bass line from the Johnny Lytle classic “The Man”, the track used as a theme by the now-deceased legendary Chicago radio personality Herb Kent….

https://youtu.be/_k_eiWybKa4

Incognito- “In Search of Better Days”  35 years in the game, and still going strong for this Jazz/funk outfit… the best thing about that fact is that founding member Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, using a constantly changing rotation of musicians and singers, has never changed the sound of the group – you can still hear the Earth, Wind & Fire and Roy Ayers/Ubiquity influences in the music… just goes to show that when you have a good formula, there’s no need to change it…. Check out the video for “Love Born In Flames”, which also features the incomparable bassist Stuart Zender, who rose to prominence as part of Jamiroquai…

https://youtu.be/D3puC1BKo4w

 

RAP/HIP-HOP

Common- “Black America Again”  This brotha has never failed to deliver the goods, and once again comes through spittin’ the knowledge needed to get through to this generation of knuckleheads… I wonder if they’re listening?… more than anywhere else, the hometown needs someone to get through… Common mixes it up some, it’s not ALL serious, he throws in some sexy Robert Glasper-sounding stuff in there too… some have criticized that aspect, but frankly, not everybody is gonna go for constant commentary without it coming across as preachy to them…now me, I’m looking for it- love/sex songs are a dime a dozen.  Check out “Letter to the Free”…

https://youtu.be/KO7tVuPHOxA

Kendrick Lamar- “untitled unmastered.”  When I first saw this drop, I thought ‘this must be a heat check’ by brotha Kendrick, to see if he could throw just anything out there up against a wall and see if it sticks… it was presented as untitled and unmastered, so I figured unfinished… demos…  there are some fully realized tracks and some unfinished ideas… overall, not a masterpiece, but as I said last year, when I anointed his “To Pimp a Butterfly” as his magnum opus, he will probably never exceed that effort… to my ears, the jazzy “untitled 05”, and “untitled 06” where he drops a rhyme over a bossa nova rhythm are standouts… no-one could seem to post an accurate clip from the album to You Tube, so there is no clip to provide here.  Take my word for it, get it… Pimp Pimp, Hooray!

 

REGGAE

The Frightnrs- “Nothing More to Say”  This release is a study in triumph and tragedy… the debut album for this NYC quartet (they’d released three independent EP’s prior), and the first reggae release on the Daptone label… the album is an excellent study in classic Rocksteady, the important bridge between Ska and Reggae, and early 70’s Reggae… Sadly, it will be their only album as the original lineup, as lead singer Dan Klein died of complications from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) just before the album’s release… as the story goes, he went to see labelmates Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings perform the night before he passed – of course, Sharon Jones herself was battling a second round of cancer, and she would pass later in 2016, as well… to say the Daptone label had a tough year would be an understatement… if we don’t hear from The Frightnrs again, they have left behind some great music… but here’s hoping they come back with a new vocalist.  The video for the title track of the album is included below – it includes footage of Dan Klein prior to his diagnosis as well as afterwards…

https://youtu.be/UQGOk2fmtFo

Stephen “Ragga” Marley- “Revelation Pt II: The Fruit of Life”  This follow-up to his Grammy Award-winning album “Revelation Pt I…” finds Marley again fusing reggae and hip-hop into a mix of tracks that’s about evenly distributed between the two genres, and often blended together… he continues to further the musical empire started by his legendary father- in fact, his son Jo Mersa is part of the next generation of Marley offspring to begin recording music… check out the video for “Scars On My Feet”, which is a Nyabinghi meets Trap track featuring Waka Flocka Flame…

https://youtu.be/WmfgK5-xBUI

 

GOSPEL

Tim Bowman Jr.- “Listen”  Second album from young artist, the nephew of Vickie Winans, and son of smooth jazz musician Tim Bowman… envelopes much of his message in urban Soul textures – his single “I’m Good” has a great message, without feeling you’ve been preached to, but just talked to, and very funky too… I’m liking what he and Mali Music are  doing to promote the Kingdom message… here’s the video for “I’m Good”…

https://youtu.be/H0fQP-YHaCE

 

COUNTRY

Sturgill Simpson- “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”  Major label debut from Kentucky native, following up on 2014’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”, Sturgill steps a little further away from the conventional sound of Country, covering a Nirvana song, employing some Muscle Shoals-sounding horns, and even the Dap Kings make an appearance… the album is an open letter to his newborn son (so we’ll soon have something in common), and has enough diversity in its’ tracks to keep someone like me, who isn’t a big fan of Country music, interested… check out the video for “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”…

https://youtu.be/BlOk5wV0DRo

Dierks Bentley- “Somewhere On a Beach” (song)  While on my anniversary trip to Beaufort, SC last year, happened to catch the video for this song, which depicts an ordinary looking, overweight, anxiety medicine-taking guy attracting the hot woman in the bar, their resulting love affair, and all the surprised looks and eventual thumbs up he receives for his sudden fortune… the story of everyman… haven’t listened to the rest of the “Black” album, but I like this… Here’s the video…

https://youtu.be/JgpmFp2DViA

 

What I’m looking forward to in 2017

I’m hopeful for more quality music to arrive this year than in recent years – early releases I’m aware of so far that I anxiously await are Thievery Corporation “The Temple of I & I, which may be out by the time this is posted; the second major release by the ‘Organic Moonshine Music’ queen, Valerie June called “The Order of Time” was supposed to be out already, but was pushed back to March 10th; the new Depeche Mode album “Spirit” drops  a week later… once these drop, as well as other interesting releases to my ears hit shelves, I’ll provide reviews for them here.  Other major releases for the early part of the year are arriving from Nickelback, Ed Sheeran, J.J. Hairston, and Charlie Wilson.

The biggest event by far for 2017 will be the Centennial celebration of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald.  Celebratory events are already occurring around the country; to commemorate the April 25th landmark, there will be some releases from various artists- one I know is on the way is from violinist Regina Carter; there will be several others.