Reincarnated, by Snoop Lion (Album of the Week)

April 20th, 2014

Haters gonna hate, but that doesn’t deter Snoop Lion from launching out in a new direction with “Reincarnated”, a likable reggae-based album. Can you take Snoop Dogg’s reincarnation as a Lion seriously, or should you dismiss it as a shallow commercial venture misappropriating the religion, culture and even accent of others?

That may be the fundamental question presented by this album, but who are we to ask, really? I can’t possibly judge Calvin Broadus, Jr.’s spiritual awareness or sincerity from my living room in Kansas City. I believe from what I have read that he is at least trying to be genuine, and that’s good enough for me. I like what he puts on the album, and I’ll leave the questioning of his motives and depth to others bolder with their judgments.

The normally nice Robin isn’t so gentle. She has categorized Snoop Dogg as a huckster, and she is not willing to reconsider. She acknowledges that some of the music is great, but it’s all just a novelty joke album to her. Well, mon, I tink she missin da joy, so sad.

As for the music, I have a bias in favor of reggae music. The third beat emphasis just works for me – it has a jaunty, optimistic and kind of cool feel. Coming from my background, it’s a bit exotic, and tends to come across as happy music, even when it addresses the poverty and violence of slum living in third world conditions.

“Reincarnated” delivers a fine dose of reggae. Despite the stiff-necked murmuring of some “purist” detractors, it was nominated for a Grammy as the best reggae album of the year last year, and the album captures the mix of silly fun, word play and spirituality that appear on many great reggae albums.

The album starts with a touchingly vulnerable spoken introduction by Snoop Lion: “It’s so much death, it’s so much destruction and it’s so much mayhem and it’s so much misunderstanding in music, we losing so many great musicians. And we don’t love them while they here. And I want to be loved while I’m here. And the only way we get love is to get love.” This album is presented with love, and it shows.

“Rebel Way” is the first song, and it’s all about an amazing bass line and sinuous lyrics. “Love is the cure and courage is the weapon you can use to overcome.”

“Here Comes the King” is a sun-splashed gem with dance hall power expressed in a bass sound that threatens to blow speakers. It makes you wish you were at one of the massive beach parties launched with massive truck-based sound systems that helped start off the reggae scene in Jamaica.

“Lighters Up” is a unification song featuring actually feuding musicians coming together with brass band. I’ve never heard tubas sound so funky – I don’t know how you could not like this song.

Each of the songs has its own charm. You probably won’t love every one of them, but you ought to find a few new favorites if you have an open heart for a guy moving from Long Beach gang wars to peace-loving reggae.

Some of my favorites are “So Long”, “No Guns Allowed”, the almost embarrassingly sweet and stripped down “This is the Good Good”, and the reassuring and inspirational “Harder Times”.

Next up: Accoustic at the Ryman, by Band of Horses.

Blak and Blu, by Gary Clark Jr. (Album of the Week)

April 13th, 2014

This week’s album is a seminar in sub-genres of the blues. Jumping horns greet you in the album’s opener, but then the second number is smokey like a Texas roadhouse. The third number is a funk groove – followed by a little Jimi Hendrix-style. Each of the songs is completely unique, and each is a great example of its slice of the blues.

I loved this album, and there’s no way I would have come across it if not for this “Album of the Week” series that Robin and I have been doing. I don’t set out to listen to blues all that often, and when I do, I head to one of the classics. Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughan are my go-to guys, or I’ll listen to a Trampled Under Foot album if I want to recall a live show. I’ve become calcified in my blues selections, but this album has shaken me by the lapels.

More than any album we’ve listened to so far this year, this one makes me want to just tell you to go out and buy it. Just buy it – you will find some songs you will love. I promise.

More than just a demo album of Gary Clark Jr., showing off that he has the chops to play every style of blues that you can mention, he comes up with some songs that ought to become classics in their own right. The title track, “Blak and Blu”, is a smooth funk gem. “Glitter ain’t Gold (Jumpin’ for Nothin’)” is as good a psych-up song as I’ve heard since Living Colour. “Travis County” is just a fun romp with some great guitar licks, a boogie-woogie piano and a drummer having a blast. I want to see this one live! And “The Life” is a piece of introspection by a guy who knows he’s on a bad path.

Robin likes the album, too, and looks forward to seeing him live later this summer. I feel the same way, but cranked to 11. I loved the album, and cannot wait to see this guy live!

Next up: Reincarnated, by Snoop Lion.

Symphonica, by George Michael (Album of the Week)

April 6th, 2014

If loving George Michael’s amazing voice is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

By all rationality, I should hate this album, but I just don’t. If you want to read a fair, accurate and negative review of Symphonica, George Michael’s album composed of lushly arranged compositions played with a group of musicians (an orchestra?), go read Robin’s much less generous account at Deliberate Obfuscation.

I won’t argue with her. She’s right. This album is a ridiculous, self-indulgent, pompous, self-pitying, over-dramatic, cringeworthy spectacle by a man with a penchant for cruising for anonymous sex and a record of driving while stoned – several times. In 2013, he suffered a head injury when he fell out of his own car on a highway in Britain. Yet he expresses bewilderment:

I guess it’s tough, I guess I’m older
And everything must change
But all this cruelty and money instead of love
People, have we no shame?

Indeed, George, have we no shame? Apparently, “we” have no shame. None whatsoever.

Despite it all, I’ve been a fan of George Michael since the days of Wham. I can’t explain it. Maybe I had a thing for stubble in the mid-80s – I’m also a big fan of Don Johnson, who played Sonny Crockett in those days.

This album offers a few true gems. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is a soaring version of the song that Roberta Flack owns. Michael’s version is somehow bigger, and shows off his impressive range, from rumbling lows to highs that shift on the winds at that altitude. His version doesn’t supplant Flack’s, but it stands right there with it.

“Brother Can You Spare a Dime” is a reintroduction of a truly great American classic song from the Depression era, made famous by Al Jolson and Bing Crosby. It laments the fate of a generation suffering from economic turbulence not of their making. I hope that the presumably very-well-heeled crowds in the halls where this album was recorded caught its message of empathy for the poor.

Yes, this album is recorded live, though I’m not entirely sure why. At one point, he has to “shush” the audience, and like the ill-mannered apes that show up at most concerts, even then a few buckle to their strange compulsion to whoop at wrong moments. (To be fair, this incident happens on the most laughable song of the album, which “features” the absolute worst harpist I have ever heard – I honestly believe I could do better wearing a pair of boxing gloves if given two days to practice.)

An earlier album by George Michael was entitled “Listen Without Prejudice”, but I don’t think that is possible. Even the normally gentle and forgiving Robin opens her review with the flat statement that she doesn’t care for him. I started my own piece with a statement that I don’t wanna be right. George Michael provokes prejudice because he is George Michael.

George Michael is more than just the voice on this album. He is more than an icon. He is several symbols – each eclipsing the others in separate observers.

In Robin’s review, she talks about a wreck of a man lacking all self-discipline. She’s entirely correct, and her recounting of his failures as a human being are a mere skimming of the surface. When she rolls her eyes at his dramatic delivery of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, she’s absolutely entitled. She calls him schmaltzy and over-the-top, and I cannot say that she’s wrong. He’s a symbol of all that.

If I were a member of MADD, I would be apoplectic that this multiply-caught altered driver is getting any attention whatsoever. I get that. He’s a symbol of someone willing to risk the lives of others by driving while wasted.

For many hetero males, myself included, his gayness is the biggest reaction point. For a lot of such folk, that’s the point of departure. Not only for people like Fred Phelps, but probably for a lot of generally tolerant people out there. He wears it on his sleeve – why must he wear it on his sleeve? Now, an album of George Michael playing show-tunes?? Aaccckkk! He’s a symbol of in-your-face gayness.

And I guess that is the source of my own prejudice in his favor. There’s a part of me that reacts exactly like those generally-tolerant people who just don’t want to have to face up to his gayness. Maybe it’s a bit of atonement for my own inner homophobe that I cut some slack for the guy who is so fabulous that his liner notes on this album don’t include lyrics, just more pictures of George, George, George.

And, really, his voice is absolutely amazing.

I dare you to listen without prejudice. I can’t, and I bet you can’t.

Next up, Blak and Blu, by Gary Clark, Jr.

G I R L, by Pharrell Williams (Album of the Week)

March 30th, 2014

I suppose that I could possibly have the inner strength to resist the infectious melodies and upbeat attitude of this album, but why would I? You would have to be a bit of a prude or an asshole to dislike this album.

This album is Robin’s follow-up to the baffling introspection and sonic slop of Damien Jurado’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, and the contrast could not be greater.

Amusingly, the two albums share a bit of thematic space. Jurado’s album confronts alien beings in a surreal dreamscape involving “Silver Katherine” and it compels Jurado to describe a weird pseudo-theological response. Pharrell Williams has a different reaction to his encounter with an alien being – he envisions them banging like a cheap screen door:

I think you are a lost queen
Let me serve you, serve you
Hot sex and gold, shiny things

Alright, I’ll admit that it’s not very deep, but it’s a lot more fun to listen to! I am sure that some people would be offended by some of his more salacious lyrics, but if you lighten up and accept them for the joyously horny juvenile perspective they bring, you’ll be better for the experience.

This album is crafted to make you move your feet and swing your arms. It’s dance music, cut from the same cloth as Prince and Michael Jackson. I know that is high praise, but I think that Pharrell Williams deserves the comparison. This is unserious music at its absolute best.

While the music is unserious, there’s a ton of work going on here. Backing strings, great bass work, funky guitar and sharp drums are put together on songs that have a fair amount of range within the dance genre. You won’t get bored listening to this album – I listened to it at least a dozen times this week, and it still gets my toes tapping.

Of course, it would be blogger malpractice to talk about this album without mentioning the phenomenon of 24 Hours of Happy. Click on the link, and see if a smile doesn’t sneak onto your face. You might even find yourself clapping along if you feel like a room without a roof.

I’m kind of shocked that all this exuberance hasn’t worn me out this week. I don’t want to listen to this type of music constantly, but I do want to add this to my “upbeat” playlist. We should all have one of those.

Next up: Symphonica, by George Michael

English Oceans, by the Drive-By Truckers (Album of the Week)

March 23rd, 2014

One of my favorite rowdy bands has grown up a bit, and the result is an album that demonstrates that kick-ass rock can be mature. “English Oceans” is a great album even without the bar-fighting brashness of earlier masterworks like “Southern Rock Opera”. It’s not a blunting of their edginess, but more of a skilled economy in wielding the blade.

The album is split between songs of singer-guitarists and co-founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Hood has a provocative, nasally voice that combines the best qualities of Neil Young and Mick Jagger with a southern twang, while Cooley sounds a bit like Willie Nelson and Brad Roberts from the Crash Test Dummies. Hood sounds like the guy who would get you into a bar fight, and Cooley sounds like the guy who would calmly tell you to take it outside.

As in past efforts, the Drive-By Truckers succeed when they are portraying characters from the ragged edge of the American south. “Pauline Hawkins” is an anti-romantic number that brings outstanding guitar riffs along with lyrics that start out :

Don’t call me your baby
I won’t answer
Love is like cancer
And I am immune

I doubt that one will be the first dance at many weddings, but it’s a heck of a song, and probably the most rocking song of the album.

It’s hard to pick a single favorite song off this album, because they cover so many moods and styles. “Natural Light” is a juke-box Western swing number with masterful guitar work stealing the show. “First Air of Autumn” is a calm, beautiful song that will make you hit “repeat”. “Primer Coat” echoes the guitar work of REM, and features the phrase “A girl as plain as a primer coat.” “Made Up English Oceans” mixes the sound of a spaghetti western ballad with a sharp summation of Lee Atwater and his tea-bagger spawn – “Once you grab them by their pride their hearts are bound to follow/Their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural.” “Grand Canyon” is a simply beautiful tribute to a member of their tour group who died suddenly – “I wonder how a life so sturdy could just one day cease to be.”

Robin really likes this album. Even though she was horribly misguided in her appreciation of Damien Jurado, she redeems her musical taste by her love of this album.

Like I said above, the only thing this album lacks is some of the cocky brashness of their earlier work, but it isn’t missed. I love the all-knowing sophomoric authority assumed in a song like “The Three Great Alabama Icons“, and I will never tire of “Let There Be Rock”, but those songs are steeped in a brand of swagger that is tough to maintain over a full career. An album like “English Oceans”, with its slightly more pensive outlook combined with solid southern rock, makes me believe that the Drive-By Truckers aren’t going to fade away.

Next up: G I R L, by Pharrell Williams

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, by Damien Jurado (Album of the Week)

March 16th, 2014

There’s nothing wrong with Damien Jurado that a good ass-kicking couldn’t fix. While I’m not seriously wishing physical harm to the guy, it would do him a world of good to have an actual conflict to jolt him out of the psychedelic dream-state that produced this twee, disengaged album.

The thing is, he’s a good, possibly great artist. The album has a pleasant sound to it – he’s melodically gifted, and the music is generally fairly lush. Even in an album I disliked for its several flaws, I’ll agree with his fans that he avoids unpleasantness – you would never snap off the radio during one of his songs.

Part of the problem is that he doesn’t trust his voice to deliver his music. Instead, he wraps it in soggy layers of sonic glop – echo chambers, backing choirs, falsetto, strange mixing, and on and on. When he actually just sings, he’s pretty darned good.

Another part of the problem is the material he wrote. This album is the second of two about a dream he had. He was wandering and encounters a group of space travelers or something out in the desert, and they’re “Silver” Katherine and “Silver” Timothy and nobody, not even his most devout fans who are enthralled with this album, has any idea what in the hell is supposed to be going on. What we get is a basically meaningless dreamscape that sounds vaguely spiritual or even religious, but isn’t quite. It’s just weird.

Perhaps it’s weird in a beautiful way. I suppose that one could get swept into the dreamy electronically-altered voice and sonic layers and really enjoy it. Personally, it didn’t work for me. I found myself frustrated by the indecipherable meaning and sloppy sound.

Robin, on the other hand, really liked this album. She allows herself to go along with Jurado, and finds “richly orchestrated pieces that pull from many musical styles to weave the resolution of a journey.” Good for her – she had a better time listening to it than I did.

Ironically, I may have paid too much attention to the album to simply enjoy it. Like I mentioned above, if the songs of this album showed up in a radio mix, you wouldn’t turn it off. It only really gets on my nerves if I listen to an entire album of Jurado’s silver navel-gazing, and I try to engage with it.

Now, if someone walks up to him, and cuffs him around a bit, he’s going to use that musical talent to describe something that we can relate to. If Jake Bugg took him for a walk around the housing project he grew up in, or if Kacey Musgraves broke his heart and then called him up for a romp in the sack, he would probably snap out of his two-album dream and make some music that the rest of us would be welcomed to enjoy.

Next up: English Oceans, by the Drive-By Truckers

Musical Update – Seeing Sharon Jones and the Dap-Tones LIVE! + Valerie June

March 9th, 2014

Several weeks ago, Robin and I reviewed Give the People What They Want. We both loved it, and relished the energy of the album.

WOW! we journeyed to Lawrence’s Liberty Hall last night to see the group rock the stage, and they delivered. The brass was sharp, and had good dance moves. The Dap-ettes were fantastic, and opened with their own number. The whole show was tight – even the dancers pulled out of the audience on a few numbers were tremendous!

(My first cinematic posting.)

But the show was Sharon Jones. It’s hard to believe that she was getting treated for pancreatic cancer a year ago – the woman is a dancing, moving, high-voltage machine! She bounced around the stage like Richard Simmons on meth, and still had the lungs to belt songs out of the park. Amazing.

Valerie June opened, and she was great, too. Such a powerful voice, and tremendous charisma. She was at her best when it was just her – a string instrument and a voice.

If you get a chance to see either (or both) of these performances, just do it.

Elegancia Tropical, by Bomba Estereo (Album of the Week)

March 9th, 2014

Listening to this album brought to mind the classic break-up line – “It’s not you, it’s me.” I can see how this is a fun, great, energizing listen for some people, but as a middle-aged, non-Spanish-speaking, dance-club-avoiding fuddy-duddy, I have to say that this one is not to my taste.

Robin, over at Deliberate Obfuscation, says that listening to music outside our “zone” is part of the reason for this “Album of the Week” project, but the rapid beat messes with her heart-rate and nervous system. How did we get so old?

If you’re into electronic dance music, though, this album brings it. Driving bass drums, bouncing rhythm, high-energy vocals – it’s all there. Stray sound-effects from science-fiction movies are strewn liberally through the rhythms. Electronic trills, drum machines, etc..

Even listening to it alone in my car, it transports me to a loud, crowded dance hall in someplace tropical. I was practically sweating and wanted to sip a watered down Long Island Iced Tea out of a plastic cup. My head bobbed and I expected the headlights to pivot and strobe. That’s great if you want to be in a sweaty dance club, but most days at 53, that’s not a major yearning for me.

Bomba Estereo (literally, “stereo bomb”, but translated by the band’s founder as “a really cool, awesome, bad ass party”) hales from Colombia. You’ll be spared a thoughtful analysis of how the lyrics explore nuances of that country’s culture because, well, the lyrics are all in Spanish. Not only are they in Spanish, most of them are in really rapid Spanish, so, even if I knew Spanish, I doubt I would know it well enough to keep up. I suspect, without really knowing, that the lyrics are pretty much typical dance stuff. I’m pretty sure the lyrics to “Lo Que Tengo Que Decir” are naughty, judging by the tone of voice . . .

Again, my inability to understand the lyrics is a case of “It’s not you, it’s me.” I realize that the majority of the world hears music in English and misses the lyrics, so turn-about is fair play. (We spent a couple weeks in Bolivia several years ago working on building a schoolhouse, and the local workers’ radio kept blaring “Oh, Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey, hey Mickey”, which struck me as hilariously weird Andean sound.) If you want to follow the words, though, be prepared for a fire hose of Spanish.

(This album was suggested by my friend Logtar, a native of Colombia. To test my own open-mindedness when I didn’t love his music, we visited a South American restaurant he recommends, Empanada Madness. I’m happy to report that I am a fan of that aspect of his culture that includes tasty stuff fried in dough. So don’t call me a xenophobe.)

Next up: Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, by Damien Jurado.

Benji, by Sun Kil Moon (Album of the Week)

March 2nd, 2014

Debby Downer’s brother got a guitar and recorded an album full of wry observations about people suffering, dying, or just muddling through the challenges of life. This album is elevator music for the ride to the roof of a building you’re planning to jump off. It’s great road music for when you’re idling in your garage with the door closed.

All that said, though, this album is strangely enjoyable.

The singer/songwriter, Mark Kozelek, is smart, witty, clever and OMG honest. His lyrics don’t serve up sentimental mush about the sadness he depicts. In the first song, Carissa, he writes about a second cousin (grandchild of his uncle) who dies in a freakish fire caused by an aerosol can. His approach is typified by his first words:

Oh Carissa, when I first saw you, you were a lovely child
And the last time I saw you, you were fifteen and pregnant and running wild
I remember wondering, could there be a light at the end of your tunnel?
But I left Ohio then and had pretty much forgotten all about you
I guess you were there some years ago at a family funeral
But you were one of so many relatives I didn’t know which one was you

He’s a bit surprised by how broken up he is about it, and goes out to the funeral “though I’m not really needed.” His goal? To learn more about what happened, visit a few graves, and learn more about the cousin he didn’t really know, “For it is her life and death that I am helplessly drawn.”

That’s the whole charm of this album. We’re kind of helplessly drawn to its stories. They aren’t great stories because they are noble heroes (one of the songs is about a serial killer dying of natural causes), but because they are just as banal and real as Joe Sixpack dying of a heart attack shoveling snow or a wreck on the highway. Everyone slows down and looks at a wreck, but what do we really want to see? This album describes it.

One thought repeated twice in the first song bothers me about this album – that he is “Meant to give her [his dead second cousin] life poetry, or to make sure her name is known across every city.” To me, that hope seems so grand that he seems ridiculously self-important. “Now to find some poetry, to make some sense of this, to find a deeper meaning/In this senseless tragedy, O Carissa, I’ll sing your name across every sea.” Sorry, Mark, but I’m not sure that you singing this song in some basement coffeehouse in Amsterdam is going to demonstrate the power of eternal art over mortality.

Perhaps I am just being a jerk. Perhaps he is only singing of giving himself some sense of meaning. The poetry he’s coming up with is so understated. Just a guy with a guitar (a couple drums and harmonies show up on the album, but this is mostly just straight-on singer/songwriter stuff), half-singing unmetered, loose rhymes with a voice like Son Volt’s. For somebody wrestling with trying to bring meaning to the early death of a young mother, he’s not exactly shaking the gates of heaven or screaming on a mountaintop at the gods. He’s gently picking his guitar and telling her story.

To the surprise of nobody who knows us, Robin’s take on the album is both more serious and more generous than mine. Where I find self-importance, she finds a simple acknowledgement of his role as an artist. This is the furthest apart we’ve been on an album so far. I can’t wait for the coming flame wars . . .

Next up: Elegancia Tropical, by Bomba Estereo

Home Town Heroes, by Hurray for the Riff Raff (Album of the week)

February 23rd, 2014

Choosing a new CD to listen to from the pages of the Wall Street Journal might not be as cool as falling for an opening band, tracking down an artist you overhear in a coffee shop, or mining a friend’s mix CD , but that is really where I first heard about Hurray for the Riff Raff and their new album, Home Town Heroes.

Smart, lovely, and wide-ranging, this is a great album. Not just good, but truly great. It reminds me a bit of Cowboy Junkies without their occasional annoying self-indulgence.

It opens with “Blue Ride Mountain”, a homespun little ditty with banjo and hand-clapping, and a chorus that could have been yanked from a children’s song. Simplicity itself and it sticks with you.

The next song is “Crash on the Highway”. I was expecting an over-wrought “Teen Angel” knockoff, but instead got another simple gem about being stuck on a tour bus. It sounds just like she got stuck in a traffic jam in Germany, pulled out her guitar and improvised a song of longing for New Orleans.

Ahh, New Orleans. Over the past 9 years, we have fallen in love with the city that my daughter and grand-puppy now call home, and if the WSJ had not mentioned New Orleans in their write-up, I probably would not have listened trusted its advice. Lucky me – NOLA makes me happy again.

While I’m on my digression from the album, I should mention that Alynda Lee Segarra, the lead singer and writer of the group, hales from New York City, but she hopped freighter trains to settle a wander-lust, winding up in New Orleans. That’s the sort of biographical detail that makes me uncomfortable if I think about it too much. Like a politician volunteering in soup kitchens or a college athlete befriending a nerd, it’s a little too perfect to believe. I’m not saying it’s not true, but it’s a stupid thing for someone to do, and that’s not why I like the music. I’ve seen what train equipment does to people, and I hope young artist’s find better ways to establish their bona fides than riding the rails.

Public safety rant over and back to the music. The first two songs are simple, and a lot of the others could be performed by an acoustic guitar and a voice, but some of the best are more lush in their arrangements. “St. Roch Blues” comes in with harmonies, keyboard, electric guitar and a great drum kit, and it is one of the best songs I’ve heard in years. Socially significant, heart-searing, and soft and cutting – utterly beautiful.

This album is enthralling. Its songs range from simple to complex. They’re well-written and beautifully performed. It’s hard to believe there’s going to be a better album released in 2014. Yes, it really is that good.

Robin’s not quite as enthusiastic, which kind of shocks me.  I tend to struggle with women’s voices more than she does, but not this time.  I can’t explain her ambivalence – you’d think I’d have her figured out after 35 and a half years of sharing music, but she’s still an enigma sometimes.  But, trust me, my enthusiasm is the more valid opinion, and she kind of comes around.

Next up, Benji by Sun Kil Moon