Electronica Album Reviews
Steven “FlyLo” Ellison usually releases an album of his collapsed nu-jazz every other year to roaring acclaim, but has spent much of the past half-decade producing for Kendrick, mentoring Thundercat and rowing back his imbecilic defence of alleged rapist the Gaslamp Killer. This long-delayed sixth album, weakly based around the concept of fire, is a mixtape sprawl with high-profile features including David Lynch, Solange and Little Dragon. Yet despite being so revered for futurism, Ellison often settles for retreading his past. It feels like these are 27 job applications for top production gigs, rather than songs.
It’s a treat to hear Anderson .Paak and the flame he always brings to a booth on More, but it’s a rare highlight. Burning Down the House refamiliarises us with late-period George Clinton, sounding more than ever like a man struggling to unfold a map on a tram, backed by funk that’s far more Z than P.
It’s credit to Holly Herndon’s skill as a musical guide that her third album, though up to its elbows in complex ideas, feels so invigorating. Her boldest attempt yet to reconfigure modern dilemmas musical, technological and philosophical, it looks back, finding inspiration in the church choirs of her youth, and leaps forward, with a self-designed “AI baby” called Spawn – no android overlord, but just another member of her ensemble.
A solo album by an improvisational drummer would in most circumstances elicit a wary groan, but Australia’s Laurence Pike is no ordinary percussionist. He’s played with a miscellany of jazzers (notably pianist Mike Nock), and embraced genres from psych to electronica to spiritual jazz. Nonetheless, his 2018 debut, Distant Early Warning, was a surprise, blending Pike’s rhythmic skills with sounds culled from a drumpad sampler to create an uber-ambient suite, part acoustic, part electronic.
Holy Spring doubles down on that approach with impressive results. It’s inspired by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Russian title Sacred Spring), and aims “to connect with something universal”. It certainly does. Pieces such as Dance of the Earth rumble and thud, overlaid by splashes of cymbals, with more rhythmic trickery than Reich or Glass could serve up. Drum Chant, with indigenous Australian clapsticks in the mix, evokes the pulse of that continent’s vast, red interior. Elsewhere, it’s deep space that is conjured up. On Daughter of Mars, aliens appear to be calling to the blue planet, while the title track could serve as the soundtrack for a close encounter. Full of morphing grooves and moods of imminent revelation, it’s a quicksilver delight.
On her 2016 debut Heavn, musician, teacher and activist Jamila Woods crafted an ode to her home town of Chicago, and a new kind of protest music. Her contemplative, modern style of soul is built both for marching, and for recuperation, when you need to recover from the fight.
Combining genres from jazz to minimalism with a great city’s musical heritage, without resorting to pastiche, is no mean feat
Ishmael is a saxophonist, DJ, producer and bandleader, known to his friends as Pete Cunningham. Over the past few years, he’s conducted some madly varied DJ sets, created stately remixes of tracks by Detroit techno legend Carl Craig and performed a whole album’s worth of songs by the Yellow Magic Orchestra. He’s also brought his studio-bound inventions to life with the help of a band, the Ishmael Ensemble, making music that’s pitched somewhere between astral jazz, burbling electronica, trippy minimalism, psychedelic dub and 20 years of club culture.
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Jazz & Blues Album Reviews
Glen Clark – You Tell Me
GlenCo Records/Blind Raccoon Promotions
CD: 10 Songs, 35:00 Minutes
Styles: Piano Blues, Ensemble Blues, Contemporary Electric Blues Rock
“Sing us a song – you’re the piano man.” Eight words from Billy Joel, so simple yet so haunting, have etched themselves into our collective memory. From Pinetop Perkins to Ray Charles, Leroy Carr to Roosevelt Sykes, countless piano men (and women) have proven that the guitar isn’t the only instrument that makes legendary blues. Enter Texas-born Glen Clark and his latest CD, You Tell Me. It’s his first solo album since 1994, and such a return is a welcome one. A collaborator with superstars such as Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, and Willie Nelson, Clark has found a uniquely-grooved niche in the piano blues and blues-rock scene. His vocals are reminiscent of McClinton, and also Tom Petty. With just a touch of angst, the weariness of one who’s seen too much of the world over several decades, Glen sings his heart out and hopes to reach yours. On nine original songs and one cover (Kris Kristofferson’s “This Old Road”), he gives his all.
Born in Fort Worth, TX, Clark studied music at North Texas State University. He moved to L.A. in the 1970s, where he co-founded the seminal southern roots rock group Delbert and Glen. They recorded two albums for the Clean/Atlantic label, produced by Daniel Moore and T Bone Burnett. Beginning in 1980, Glen began touring and writing with Kris Kristofferson, many of whose songs are featured in the film Songwriter. Ever heard of Billie Swan’s hit single “Do I Have to Draw a Picture”? Clark wrote it, and it’s one of ASCAP’s most-performed numbers.
Performing along with him (keyboards, guitar and vocals) is the Glen Clark Band: John Bryant on drums, percussion and vocals; Jim Milan on bass and vocals, and Sam Swank on guitar. Additional players include James Pennebaker on guitar; Jeff Silbar on acoustic guitar; Jim Foster on trumpet, and Ron Jones on saxophone. Additional background vocalists are Paige Clark, Ty Clark, Tracy Truong, Cierra Franco, Ryan Franco, Pat Peterson, and Benita Arterberry.
All the songs on this CD are fantastic, so let’s do a rundown of the first three.
Track 01: “You Tell Me” – “Here I am alone at the Motel 6. How in the world are we getting this big? Same old fight about the same old thing – running hot and cold.” Who knew a tune about getting kicked to the curb could be so catchy? You almost want to do the Twist, because there’s a definite 50’s vibe under the gritty bass and guitar lines.
Track 02: “Accept My Love” – For some people, love’s the thing. Other folks just want the bling. The narrator in track two, which calls to mind John Mellencamp’s “Hurt So Good,” is “a man of humble means” who can’t provide what his inamorata really wants. Nevertheless, he soulfully persists: “Won’t you please accept my love. Got nothing else to give except my love.” Wonderful harmony here, and a refrain that’s a certifiable earworm.
Track 03: “I Can Tell By Looking” – Funky keyboards are the highlight of number three, a meditation on Clark’s struggle and search for meaning in life. Here’s another chorus that will get in your head and not find its way out: “I can tell by looking: you’re what I’m looking for.” Smooth horns add a finishing touch, as does a wicked cool guitar solo in the middle.
Are you “in the mood for a melody?” You Tell Me, and I’ll tell you that Glen Clark satisfies!
Laurie Jane & The 45s – Late Last Night – Elixir Of Sara Martin
Down In The Alley Records – 2018
12 tracks; 42 minutes
Sara Martin was from Louisville, Kentucky, a blues singer who was extensively recorded in the 1920’s (including for the Okeh label) and wrote many of her own songs. Sadly, her name seems to have been consigned to the sidelines of history (this reviewer had never heard of her) but fellow Louisville musicians Laurie Jane & The 45s decided to put things right by recording a whole album of songs that Sara would have sung back in the day. Included are five of Sara’s originals and songs by some of the great writers of the era: WC Handy, Clarence Williams, Everett Robbins and Porter Granger.
The band has not tried to reproduce the sounds of the 1920’s but has blended 21st century sounds with the jazz-inflected rhythms of the period. The core band is Laurie Jane Duggins on vocals, Cort Duggins on guitar/piano, Jason Embry on bass and Scott Dugdale on drums, aided by Screamin’ John Hawkins on guitar, Brian ‘Boss’ Hogg on sax and Eric Snyder on trumpet, the horns playing on most tracks.
The album kicks off in style with the title track, Sara’s tale of a wild night of loving working brilliantly with the nagging rhythm guitar, a fine horn arrangement and some intense lead guitar on the outro. It’s a striking opener which shows just how well these vintage songs can be translated to the modern idiom. Laurie Jane has a good, clear voice with plenty of range and she sings “Achin’ Hearted Blues” (Clarence Williams, Spencer Williams, Clarence Johnson) very well, the song clearly betraying its original period behind a full horn arrangement. The band also tackles a second Clarence Williams song in “Sugar Blues” which sounds great with slashing guitars giving a Stones gloss to the tune while Sylvester Weaver’s “Can’t Find Nobody To Do Like My Daddy Do” is given something of a rockabilly feel from the guitar as it builds into a full band production with the horns making their presence felt as the song develops.
The band can also play at a slower pace and “Blind Man Blues” (Eddie Green/Billie McLauren) is very well done with the trumpet adding an aching heartbreak feel to the interpretation. WC Handy’s “Joe Turner Blues” is another slower tune, this time with guitar and slide working well in tandem. Sara and Clifford Hayes’ “I’m Gonna Be A Lovin’ Old Soul” is given an upbeat, slide-driven interpretation and the band’s take on the classic “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” is a wild ride to close the album with great exuberance after a first verse which attempts to sound like a vintage recording.
Indeed, the band clearly decided to offer a few tracks in ‘vintage’ style, the three examples all being recognizable by initial 78 rpm scratching noises. For these three stripped-back tracks, separately recorded, Laurie Jane’s vocals are distorted a little and she is accompanied just by Cort who plays resonator on “Strange Lovin’ Blues”, guitar on “Pleadin’ Blues” (two more of Sara Martin’s songs) and piano on WC Handy’s “Atlanta Blues”.
While it is interesting to hear how songs might have sounded with 20’s recording techniques, three of them may be a little too much. The band’s contemporary stylings work so well that the three ‘vintage’ tunes sound like interludes.
A very interesting album with some excellent playing. Kudos to the band for bringing Sara Martin back to the attention of today’s blues fans.
Atomic Road Kings – Clean Up The Blood
12 songs – 39 minutes
Big Jon Atkinson is a relatively young blues artist with musical sensibilities that sit squarely in bygone eras, so it’s no wonder that the debut recording he’s made with his all-star band, The Atomic Road Kings, turns back the clock in a stylish, pleasant way.
All but one of the tunes here are fresh and original, but they’re recorded old-school – captured live and in mono to tape on analog equipment dating to the ‘50s.
Born in Florida but based out of Bristol, a town situated on both sides of the Tennessee-Virginia border, Atkinson established The Road Kings in 2012 in partnership with harmonica player Eric “Jailhouse” Von Herzen, best known for his extensive work with the pop/rock powerhouse Social Distortion.
Their first-call rhythm section is composed of upright and electric bassist Bill Stuve (Rod Piazza’s Mighty Flyers, Candye Kane and dozens of others) and percussionist Malachi Johnson (Kim Wilson and Johnny Tucker). Adding to the mix are guitarists Scot Smart, Danny Michel and Tony Delgado, who trade off with Atkinson on rhythm and lead, and West Coast powerhouse Robert Welsh (Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio), who sits in on piano for one cut.
Atkinson penned 10 of the 12 cuts, handles all the vocals and delivers lead and rhythm guitar on four songs each with Scot Smart, Danny Michel and Tony Delgado also sharing in six-string duties. The themes primarily deal with the underbelly of romantic relationships with occasional commentary about living in this modern world.
Michel’s lead kicks off the slow-blues, stop-time opener, “I’ve Got Time,” which sets the mood as it delivers a wry view of a prison sentence – with Big Jon knowing he deserves it, knows it will do him good, regrets the separation from his family and realizes the stretch could have been far worse than what he received.
“Rumors” — the realization that a relationship is teetering on the edge because the singer’s lady believes the truth in the lies – is up next, putting Atkinson’s powerful pipes on display and providing Von Herzen plenty of space to stretch out on the reeds. The action heats up for “In Arms Reach,” a plea for reconsolidation that hints of B.B. King’s “Little By Little” before taking off in its own direction, and the rocker “Have Your Way,” the painful realization that the singer’s drug use is putting his love affair in jeopardy.
Von Herzen’s harmonica propels “My Way Back Home,” which has the feel of a ‘50s train song, before the haunting slow-blues title cut, “Clean Up The Blood,” which relies on sanguine imagery as it describes more romantic heartbreak. “Candy Man,” written by Von Herzen, brings the suffering to a momentary end as Big Jon sings about his prowess as a lover.
“Ain’t For Me” quickly offers up a complaint about the way a lady’s been acting, a statement that’s driven home in the lilting shuffle, “You Got To Change.” The only cover in the set, the traditional “Two Sided Story,” swings like a pendulum before Welsh joins the action for the slow and funky “Vibrations,” which finds the singer tired of suffering in another bad relationship. The disc closes with “Back Down South,” a vow to leave troubles behind and return home.
Sure, the themes here are grim, but there’s real beauty in what Atkinson and his cohorts have conceived. The musicianship is superb, and the tunes would fit comfortably in the ‘50s, an era in which the blues painted far more grim pictures than you’ll find here. Available through the Bigtone website.
Katie Henry – High Road
Self-Release – 2018
10 tracks; 44 minutes
Katie Henry is a young multi-instrumentalist from New Jersey and on her debut disc she plays piano, clavinet and guitar as well as handling all lead vocals. The band is John Ginty on keys (who also produced the album), Jonathan Fritz on guitar, Antar Goodwin on bass and Maurice ‘Moe’ Watson on drums/BV’s plus a few guests: Marcus Randolph (pedal steel), Anthony Kazan (guitar), Mike Buckman (rhythm guitar) and Billy Harvey (vocals) appear on one track each and Hector Lopez is on drums on two cuts. All the songs are original, credited to Katie and Antar. The album was recorded at Showplace Studios by Ben Elliott, so one wonders why the album was not released on Ben’s American Showplace label.
The album shows that Katie has quite a range of styles. Opener “Nowhere Fast” has a sort of 70’s disco feel before it develops into a fast-paced rocker with the organ bubbling away beneath the rhythm and a fiery guitar solo. Katie’s vocals manage to be bright yet sultry at the same time, a tune that grows on you. “Nothing To Lose” finds Katie in a bit of a mess: “My drink’s half drunk and my wallet’s half empty, my mind just won’t be nice. I got half an ounce of sense and a lot less weed and I give myself bad advice.” Paying dues is what it’s called and Katie’s song describes how tough it can be as a musician starting out – good vocals and a catchy mid-tempo arrangement.
The run of songs that follows really shows Katie’s versatility: “Chapels” is a good song about how “cities’ tallest buildings are not chapels anymore”, the exciting pedal steel adding gospel accents; the title track “High Road” is an attractive country tune; “Carry You” is an emotional ballad about returning the favour to a friend who helped you “out of a dark place” and also features an extended guitar solo; “Gypsy Sister” is an anthemic song that seems to be about a lost friend with piano and guitar both featured.
None of those songs are really blues, but “Dead Man’s Hands” gets closer, a dark piece with John’s organ and Katie’s piano setting the mood well, and “Someday” is a rolling blues with good slide work from Anthony Kazan. “Roll Away” has nice harmonies (mainly Katie, I presume), a good rocker with a feel-good chorus accented by slide guitar; album closer “Takes A Lot” shows the whole band working well together, the bass underpinning the whole tune, a nagging funk guitar riff underpinning Katie’s strong vocals and guitar, organ and clavinet all getting their moment in the spotlight.
This is an accomplished effort which has deservedly been rewarded with a nomination in the 2019 Blues Blast Awards for Debut Album. It will be interesting to see what path Katie will follow in the future as she seems to have quite a range of choices!
John Clifton – In The Middle Of Nowhere
Rip Cat Records RIC 1901
11 songs – 53 minutes
Harp player/vocalist has been a fixture in the Central California music scene since the late ‘80s, and shows why with this collection of straight-ahead Chicago- and West Coast-style blues and R&B that’s both powerful and cliché-free.
Based out of Fresno, where he and brother Bill built their reputation with The MoFo Party Band, Clifton is a veteran road dog whose travels have regularly crisscrossed the U.S. in addition to playing festivals as far away as France, Belgium, Poland and New Zealand.
A State Of California honoree for his contribution to the arts, Clifton’s toured in support of Big Bill Morganfield and was a contributor to Morganfield’s highly reviewed Blood Stains On The Wall CD. He’s also a producer whose work with former International Blues Challenge finalists The Boogie Boys won album of the year honors in the Polish Blues Awards.
This is Clifton’s third release on the Rip Cat imprint, a follow-up to the 2018 release, Nightlife, which spent six months in the Roots Record Report Top 25 charts. This disc follows the same formula, mixing originals with obscure covers. Backed by Rip Cat owner Scott Abeyta on guitar, Jake Finney on bass and Edward Fritz on percussion, the lineup also includes Bartek Szopinski, a 10-time honoree in the Polish Blues Awards, on keyboards with guest appearances by guitarist Roger Perry and John Shafer on tambourine.
“I’m Leaving You Baby” opens the action atop a hard, uptempo shuffle and provides Clifton with plenty of space for a tasty, extended diatonic solo before he launches in on the title tune, “In The Middle Of Nowhere,” the first original in the set. It swings from the jump as John describes himself as a “poor country boy…livin’ in a place that’s a big disgrace” and yearning for a change of scene.
Jimmy Rogers’ 1956 Chess release, “If It Ain’t Me Baby,” gets an uptempo redo before Clifton shifts gears for a little West Coast swing with the easy/greasy instrumental, “Cool Spot In Hell,” a six-minute number that features extended solos from Abeyta and Szopinski, but will delight any harp enthusiast, too.
“Poor Boy,” a minor classic by Howlin’ Wolf, and “Keep It Clean,” a tune first recorded by Charley Jordan in 1930, are up next before three consecutive originals. “Junkie Woman Blues” comes across with a ‘30s acoustic feel before “Four Years Ago” fires out of the gate with a Chicago feel as Clifton describes the angry departure of his woman after learning of a past transgression.
Next up, “Ain’t Spending No More Money” is fresh, but feels as if it could have been part of Sonny Boy Williamson II’s catalog as it delivers a message to a lady who’s constantly demanding the singer buy her something new. The disc concludes with refreshingly updated covers of Junior Wells’ “So Tired I Could Cry” and Merle Haggard’s uptempo “Honky Tonk Night Time Man.”
Available through Amazon, Bear Family or direct through the artist’s website (address above), In The Middle Of Nowhere is a keeper for anyone who loves their blues fresh, but deeply steeped with an old-time feel. Strongly recommended.
Pop Album Reviews
I get the whole idea of wanting to stay true to the original, but Disney really dropped the ball by not rebranding its latest remake as The Lion Queen. Because let’s be honest, this is Beyoncé‘s movie.
Not only does Queen Bey voice Nala in the film, she curated an entire album inspired by it. Entitled The Lion King: The Gift, Beyoncé has described the collection as “sonic cinema” and” a new experience of storytelling.” She explained, “I wanted to do more than find a collection of songs that were inspired by the film. It is a mixture of genres and collaboration that isn’t one sound. It is influenced by everything from R&B, pop, hip hop and Afro Beat.”
“I wanted to put everyone on their own journey to link the storyline,” she added. “Each song was written to reflect the film’s storytelling that gives the listener a chance to imagine their own imagery, while listening to a new contemporary interpretation. It was important that the music was not only performed by the most interesting and talented artists but also produced by the best African producers. Authenticity and heart were important to me.”
Ahead of its release on Friday, July 19th, Beyoncé has revealed the tracklist and collaborators appearing on The Lion King: The Gift. It’s a who’s who of black royalty, including her Lion King co-star Donald Glover, her husband JAY-Z, her daughter Blue Ivy Carter (!), her “Freedom” collaborator Kendrick Lamar, plus 070 Shake, Tierra Whack, Pharrell, and more.
Most intriguing, the tracklist includes a collaboration between Bey, JAY, and Glover’s Childish Gambio entitled “Mood 4 Eva”. Meanwhile, mom and daughter appear together on “Brown Skin Girl”. In all, eight of the album’s 13 track feature Beyoncé. “Spirit”, the album’s lead single and Song of the Week, serves as the closing track.
Of course, all of this is separate from the official Lion King soundtrack, which was released last week and also features Beyoncé and Gambino
The Lion King: The Gift Tracklist:
01. Beyoncé – Bigger
02. Beyoncé – Find Your Way Back (Circle of Life)
03. Tekno, Yemi Alade, and Mr. Eazi – Don’t Be Jealous of Me
04. Burna Boy – Ja Ara E
05. Beyoncé, JAY-Z, and Childish Gambino – Mood 4 Eva
06. Salatiel and Pharrell – Water
07. Blue Ivy Carter, St. JHN, WizKid, and Beyoncé – Brown Skin Girl
08. Tiwa Savage and Mr. Eazi – Keys to the Kingdom
09. Beyoncé – Otherside
10. Beyoncé, Shatta, and Wale – Already
11. Tierra Whack, Beyoncé, Busiswa, Yemi Alade, and Moonchild Sanelly – My Power
12. 070 Shake and Jessie Reyez – Soar
13. Beyoncé – Spirit
.@Beyonce has unveiled the tracklist to #TheLionKing: The Gift Soundtrack which features collaborations from @KendrickLamar, #JayZ, @DonaldGlover, @TierraWhack, @JessieReyez, @Pharrell, @WizKidAyo, @MrEazi, @Wale & more. pic.twitter.com/XkW4J3k5Y7
— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) July 16, 2019
Five albums in, and Africa Express – Damon Albarn’s cross-cultural collaboration engine – has pitched up in Johannesburg, known as Egoli in Xhosa. It could be the best iteration yet of this speed-dating pop writer’s camp, in which a handful of UK and US artists (Nick Zinner, a returnee, plus Super Furry Gruff Rhys and grime MC Ghetts, to name three) and a 20-stong cast of local producers, musicians, singers and groove-bringers pull an album together in a week.
Thanks to South Africa’s vast natural resources of dance music, both traditional and bleeding-edge, Egoli is a party album almost end to end, an update on Buraka Som Sistema’s Angolan-Portuguese rave dynamics and more like a Gorillaz record than anything you might normally file under “world music”. The frisky, blue-wigged Moonchild Sanelly locks horns with Infamous Boiz, innovators in South Africa’s gqom genre. Together they lead the charge for body-moving pop.
While Palace’s 2016 debut, So Long Forever, was an accomplished enough slice of grown-up indie, it did feel a little half-hearted in places. Although the songs concerned themselves with bereavement, the marital breakup of frontman Leo Wyndham’s parents and similarly weighty topics, at times there was a detachment to his delivery that seemed at odds with the subject matter. Loss is once again a recurrent theme on the London-based group’s’s follow-up – not least on the opening title track (“She’s watching from heaven/ She’s always beside you”) and epic closer Heaven Up There – but pleasingly, Wyndham sings with far greater confidence and conviction this time.
With the band now a three-piece, following the departure of bassist Will Dorey, there’s an organic warmth to the arrangements on Life After, Rupert Turner’s guitar and Matt Hodges’ drums foregrounding Wyndham without ever stealing the spotlight, even on the more strident Running Wild (don’t be fooled by the title: it doesn’t represent a departure into freewheeling debauched rock-piggery). If there is a criticism it’s that, Martyr and Running Wild aside, there’s too little that really grabs the attention. Still, not many bands do better emotionally literate, melancholic indie at the moment.
Grande salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie de Paris
Dancing like no one’s watching, with club beats bubbling under, Yorke brings a happy, dreamy dimension to his solo tour
An enthusiastic amateur for years, Thom Yorke’s career as a dancer really took off in 2011. Back then, Radiohead – the band for whom he still acts as frontman – released a song called Lotus Flower from their eighth album, The King of Limbs.
That album title, you suspect now, refers not just to a tree, but to Yorke’s own arms and legs. The song’s accompanying video was widely praised, and much remixed, for the fact that Yorke – a slight white Englishman in his 40s – was dancing like no one was watching to some high-concept choreography. It confirmed Yorke as a maker of music for bodies, not just for brains. He seemed, emphatically, like a guy who does yoga.
It is not difficult to love Yorke. He is the Old Testament prophet of British music