Electronica Album Reviews
Jazz, ambient and soul harmonise in the Dublin-based producer’s gently daze-inducing debut
Dublin-based producer and instrumentalist Sal Dulu makes calm, expansive beats that swim with the cinematic possibilities of the night-time. Xompulse is his debut album, and comprises a subtly enticing collection of tracks that marry everything from boom-bap, classical, jazz, ambient, warm licks of soul samples and glossy shades of 90s downtempo. There’s more than an occasional nod to celestial, Porcelain-era Moby and lush Madlib stylings.
Thematically, Dulu has said the record explores the liminal space between reality and dreams, with each of the 10 tracks serving as individual memories within this dreamscape. There is certainly a slow-burning, woozy quality that slips and slides gently from track to track, though slick features from rappers Fly Anakin, Koncept Jack$on and staHHr all cut through, lest things get too soporific (a couple more of these would have been welcome). Still, simple moments are rendered beautiful by Dulu’s arrangements: the quiet ebb and flow of the piano-led title track; the careening strings on Alien Boy 96; the soft sax on Just Like Sonnenalle Blues; the wobbling synth on I Kan. Twinkling and soothing, Xompulse is a pleasant reverie to sink into.
Strom’s first album in 30 years – and last, following her death in December – is a quiet riot of digitally manipulated drones and noise
The music of the San Francisco-based composer Pauline Anna Strom, who died just before Christmas, aged 74, might be described as new age – a mystical, trance-like synthesised babble that could conceivably accompany meditation sessions or yoga classes. But Strom was a cheerfully cantankerous figure who drew from more arcane Californian sources. Listen to the music that she released in the 1980s as Trans-Millenia Consort and you can hear traces of the blissful minimalism of Terry Riley; the wobbly electronica that Stephen Hill used to play on his Hearts of Space radio show; the electro-acoustic compositions of Joanna Brouk; even the hypnotic trance music that Alice Coltrane was making in her Santa Monica ashram.
Arranged by Four Tet, the producer’s stunning album is poignant and sincere, combining beats, jazz, reggae toasts and vocal snippets into a kind of folklore
There are more ways to fall in love with Madlib’s myriad music projects than not. For many it’ll be his charismatic beats for the late, great MF Doom, his collaborations with fellow sampling pioneer J Dilla or more recently, his sleek instrumentals for rapper Freddie Gibbs. Then there’s his remixes of the Blue Note Records archive, his one-man-jazz-band Yesterdays New Quintet, and Lord Quas – his satirical, pitched-up alter ego MC. Madlib’s ability to speak a universal language through so many modes is hip-hop in technique but something much broader in essence. On Sound Ancestors, his creations are arranged by producer, DJ and longtime friend Four Tet. It’s through the idiosyncrasies of this collaboration (such as an abnormally clean mix with uncharacteristically prominent drums) that Sound Ancestors achieves its mission to deliver a no-guest vocalists, start-to-finish-listen Madlib album experience.
The Northern Irish bloggers-turned-DJs-turned-producers kick over the dinner-party table with an album that matches the scope and ambition of 90s dance artists
The progression from record collector to DJ to artist is a common one in dance music: the difference with Northern Irish duo Bicep is they have done it all in public. They first emerged 12 years ago among a plethora of late-noughties bloggers devoted to digging up musical obscurities of varying hues and presenting them to the public. Their Feel My Bicep blog began as a means of keeping in touch with record-collecting friends from Belfast who’d gone off to university. Within a couple of years, it was attracting 100,000 visitors a month, and begat a DJing career, a Rinse FM radio show, a record label, a succession of remixes and productions and, ultimately, a deal with Ninja Tune, the venerable dance label run by Coldcut, who presumably recognised kindred spirits.
The early posts on their blog are long gone, but you get a flavour of its eclecticism from a mammoth 67-hour-long Bicep playlist on Spotify, where Angie Stone rubs shoulders with Aphex Twin and Odyssey, and the Ohio Players coexist with 90s house, punishing Basic Channel techno, drum’n’bass and the new wave of jazz. It doesn’t feel a million miles removed from the kind of eclectic musical connections Coldcut made on their celebrated 70 Minutes of Madness mix album and Solid Steel radio show in the mid-90s.
Veering from squalling howls to symphonic loveliness, Keiran Hebden’s two new albums are equally rewarding
In recent weeks, producer Kieran Hebden’s Four Tet has released two new songs with Thom Yorke and Burial, alongside these two new albums. Each track on 871 and Parallel is prosaically numbered in sequence, which hints these are end-of-year data dumps. The horrendous, squalling howls of 871’s opener 0000 871 0001 do little to dissuade this impression. At a time when every cough is a gunshot, you may prefer more felicitous sounds than Hebden scouring his hard drive clean with a metal mop.
Thankfully, most of 871 is rewarding, if occasionally derivative. Its music mostly dates back to 1996, and you can hear the teenaged Hebden essaying plangent shoegaze, ambient techno and trip-hop with varying success and an awful lot of bells. Twenty-five years on, its chaotic ambition sounds comfortingly nostalgic. Parallel is leaner, more purely melodic, and has the advantage of Parallel 1, a glorious 27-minute indulgence which begins unexceptionally then gently wears you down with its symphonic loveliness.
Metal Album Reviews
Rock Album Reviews
Six Feet Under make it very clear that more than 25 years into their career, they remain at the forefront of the death metal. Dynamic, heavy-as-hell, catchy, and uncompromising, it is everything that the band’s longtime faithful have come to expect from these giants. The band members are Chris Barnes (vocals), Jack Owen (rhythm and …
Behemoth slithered out of Poland and forever changed the black metal scene. After numerous successful albums and multiple monstrous tours, Nergal and company have risen to become quite the powerhouse in a genre that was once very much underground and taboo. Perhaps this album is their gift of sorts to their most loyal fans. And …
Zakk Wylde, Blasko, and Joey Castillo finally decided to go into the studio as Zakk Sabbath and cover the the self-titled debut from Black Sabbath in its entirety under the title Vertigo. Black Sabbath’s now 50-year-old debut is one of the most iconic albums in metal history and is credited as the first real heavy …
Hidey ho, all you Skullsnboners! Que pasa? Hope you are all surviving the summer of isolation and no live shows. In the words of the greatest philosopher of our time, Butthead, “This sucks more than anything that has ever sucked before.” But one thing that does not suck this summer is the end of five …
The forthcoming EP by the grindcore legends Pig Destroyer, The Octagonal Stairway, is a killer mix of their iconic, intense grindcoredeliverd during the first half and industrial noise tracks filling the second. With song lengths ranging from 45 seconds to 11 minutes, there is a lot of variety in this release, including an appearance from …
Classical Music Album Reviews
Country Music Album Reviews
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Jazz & Blues Album Reviews
Mike Felton – Fast Mikey Blue Eyes
12 songs time – 56:07
Chicago based roots(Americana) singer-songwriter Mike Felten on this his sixth studio CD may better labeled as a purveyor of “Chicagoana” as mentioned in his promo handout. He talk-sings and/or talks his way through songs inspired by the Windy City. He accompanies himself on acoustic guitar backed by top notch musicians, including Chicago blues stalwarts Corky Siegel on harmonica and Barry Goldberg on piano. Curiously missing is electric guitar that is usually found in music of this sort. The lead positions are taken up by harmonica and keyboards. Mike wrote all but one song for this project.
Corky and Barry both appear on the good timey “Three Drinks In” to lend blues “cred” to the song. Mr. Goldberg returns for some rollicking piano on “Detroit Woman”, along with the tasty harmonica of Harmonica Hinds. A rootsy and upbeat vibe is given to one of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s signature songs “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”. Mike commits himself admirably on acoustic slide guitar as the sole instrument on the melancholy “Chasing A Rumor”. He regales us with tales of a bad area in Chicago called “Homan Avenue”. Bob Long supplies barrelhouse piano on this one.
“Godzilla Jones” is used as another word for a mental depression. Harmonica Hinds flavors this one with his harmonica chops. Mike’s main slide guitar riff on “2302”, about his old address, is pretty much lifted from “I’m A Man”. He expounds on racism on “Y’all Are Guilty”. “Like Listening To Charlie Parker” is a straight ahead stream-of-consciousness talking vamp. It meanders seemingly without a point over a backdrop of electric piano and organ.
What it all amounts to is Mike’s observations and ruminations on life set to rousing musical accompaniment. What the individual thinks about his vocal delivery is a matter of taste. It’s worth a listen to this diary of life experiences.
Shemekia Copeland – Uncivil War
12 Tracks – 46 minutes
For the tenth release of her compelling career, the eighth for Alligator Records, Shemekia Copeland once again unleashes her riveting voice to call attention to the woes plaguing modern society as well as issues of the heart. With noted producer Will Kimbrough’s guidance, in addition to his first-rate guitar work, Copeland commands your attention at every turn. Even the contributions of a number of top-flight guest artists fail to relegate her out of the spotlight for very long.
Listeners get a history lesson on “Clotilda’s On Fire,” a deeply moving hymn about the last slave ship to arrive in our country. The snarling guitar interplay between Kimbrough and guest Jason Isbell adds layers of emotions to the singer’s recitation of a journey made in chains and despair. “Walk Until I Ride” is sparked by the cries from Jerry Douglas on the lap steel guitar. Copeland proudly delivers a message of strength, unwilling to bow before the forces that fail to treat people as equals, finishing off with a burst of gospel intensity.
The title track is a quieter number that ponders the wide divisions and acrimonious conversations that have become the norm in our country. Copeland’s pleas for understanding are framed by Sam Bush on mandolin and Douglas on dobro, his regular instrument of choice. Kimbrough rips it up on “Apple Pie And A .45,” pulling a steady stream of ferocious licks out of his guitar, while Copeland offers a searing depiction of the American gun culture. On “No Heart At All,” she has finally had enough of a man stuck in the midst of an emotional wasteland, offering nothing in spite of her best efforts to raise a spark.
Taking us to church one more time on “Give God The Blues”, the singer reminds those who profess to believe, that God loves all beings, that “God ain’t no Republican, he ain’t no Democrat, he ain’t even independent. God’s above all that,” and he even loves karaoke singers. The rhythm section of Lex Price on bass and Pete Abbott on drums are rock solid through the album, especially on the good time rocker “She Don’t Wear Pink,” featuring the legendary Duane Eddy and Webb Wider on guitar. Lisa Oliver-Gray and Janelle Means join in on backing vocals, a role they handle on several other tracks.
One of the rising stars of blues music, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, gets to showcase his prodigious guitar skills while Copeland takes on mankind’s rape of the natural world on “Money Makes You Ugly,” making it clear that the bill is coming due real soon, and it won’t be pretty. “Dirty Saint” is Copeland’s upbeat, second-line tribute to Dr.John, who had been her friend and supporter since childhood. Phil Madeira fills out the arrangement with some fine organ playing.
The three covers are also standout tracks. The stripped down take of the Rolling Stones hit “Under My Thumb” showcases Copeland’s ability to dig deep into the emotions expressed in the lyrics while making it clear that the roles have definitely been reversed. Junior Parker’s slow blues classic, “In The Dark,” is even more indicative of Copeland’s abilities, her meticulous phrasing and mournful cries articulating the searing heartache caused by an unfaithful lover. Even Steve Cropper’s beautifully constructed six string solo pales in comparison to Copeland’s devastating performance.
As she does on every album, the singer includes a song written by her father, Johnny Copeland. This time she closes the album with “Love Song,” setting aside all of the hurts and social injustice for a few minutes of feeling good, expressing her devotion to the blues with Kimbrough, Price, and Abbott providing one final dose of outstanding accompaniment.
Labels are often tossed around right and left. Everybody is a star, or a legend in-the-making. Mostly it is all part of marketing campaign that overstates reality. Some years ago, Shemekia Copeland was crowned the Queen of the Blues by Koko Taylor’s daughter. While that label may have been unfair and a bit premature in that moment, the singer has continued to hone her talent while adopting a fearless attitude about the music. She does what the best blues artists have always done – sing about the realities of their life, the people they encounter, and how it all plays out in the wider world. A work of true inspiration, this is a must-hear album.
(Shemekia Copland has received five 2021 Blues Music Award nominations, including Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Contemporary Blues Album, Contemporary Blues Female Artist, and B.B. King Entertainer award.)
Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite – 100 Years Of Blues
12 Tracks – 52 minutes
Truth be told, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite have more than 110 years of experience playing the blues. Both veterans have had extensive careers that have had more than a few historic moments. Both have already earned spots in the Blues Hall Of Fame in Memphis, sponsored by the Blues Foundation.
Bishop’s fame began to build as a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. During his long solo career, he has released a number of highly regarded albums that featured his striking original songs, attaining hit record status with “Fooled Around And Fell In Love.” Musselwhite has received 22 Blues Music Award nominations for his harmonica playing alone, not to mention an equal of nominations in other categories, many recognizing his recorded work over the past 30 years.
This recording takes both musicians back to the early days of their careers, scuffling around Chicago clubs in the 1960s, learning from the legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson II. The stripped down sound is captured perfectly by Kid Andersen at his amazing Greaseland Studios. As producer and recording engineer in addition to mixing and mastering the material, Andersen once again works his magic in creating a soundscape that highlights the personalities of both men along with the feel of a late night session in a rowdy blues club on a Saturday night.
Andersen also contributes on bass guitar on four cuts, including the opener, “Birds Of A Feather.” a Bishop original that finds him encouraging listeners to get loose over a propulsive groove, with help from frequent Bishop collaborator Bob Welsh on guitar, a role he fills on seven tracks. The multi-talented Welsh also adds his noteworthy piano skills on the remaining five tunes, laying down some Otis Spann inspired playing behind Musselwhite’s weathered vocal that takes “Good Times” to a place far darker than the the title’s promise.
The format is simple – the lead switches back and forth from track to track. Bishop updates one of his songs on “What the Hell?,” pondering our current inability to get along as Musselwhite answers with some of his trademark harp blowing. The mood brightens considerably, with Bishop’s sense of humor on full display, on “Old School,” a cut from a prior Alligator release. Perhaps Bishop’s finest moment occurs on a cover of Leroy Carr’s “Midnight Hour Blues,” a dark, brooding slow blues. Musselwhite’s mournful harp cries echo the depths of despair in the guitarist’s measured vocal. The instrumental “South Side Slide” is a musical conversation between the three men, with Bishop on slide guitar.
When his turn comes around, Musselwhite also shows that the passage of time has not diminished his skills. His powerful voice captures your attention on “West Helena Blues,” a Roosevelt Sykes original with more fine piano emanating from Welsh’s fingertips. Equally strong is the driving take of “If I Should Have Bad Luck,” the two guitarists making sure Musselwhite has a solid foundation behind him, showing his appreciation with some upper register Jimmy Reed-style harp playing. The original “Blues For Yesterday” finds the harp player pondering his life, thankful the experiences while voicing awareness that the journey might soon be coming to an end.
The men co-wrote the closing title track, built around Bishop’s tense guitar work. They take listeners back to the old days one more time, sharing the vocal lead, then setting up an intimate instrumental dialogue that epitomizes the proper way to play in the electric Chicago blues tradition.
Nominated for 2021 Blues Music Awards for Traditional Blues Album and Album Of The Year, this release certainly is one of the highlights of last year. If you have missed this one, make sure you rectify that omission quickly, as this one is indeed highly recommended!
Veronica Lewis – You Ain’t Unlucky
Blue Heart Records – 2021
8 tracks; 33 minutes
Piano enthusiasts rejoice! Soon after a new keyboard prodigy in Cincinatti’s Ben Levin here comes another, Veronica Lewis. Born in New Hampshire just 17 years ago, Veronica is already well established in her native New England where she has been recognized as the Best Young Artist in the Boston area; in 2019 she traveled across the country playing at festivals from Rhode Island to Memphis. On this debut album Veronica is supported by a drummer (one of Mike Walsh, Ben Rogers or Chris Anzalone); sax is added to four tracks by Don Davis and to one by Joel Edinberg. On three tracks Veronica was recorded at home playing her 115 year old upright piano ‘Margaret’! Veronica wrote six songs and there are two covers.
The title track opens proceedings with a New Orleans-flavored tune and it is immediately obvious that Veronica is a terrific piano player. The song stresses the need to think positively (a message we all need at present): “Some people think it’s bad every cherry has a pit, but inside every pit is a whole new tree”. The way that Don’s sax works against Veronica’s rolling piano is excellent on this and the second track “Clarksdale Sun” which takes us down to the Delta with a boogie rhythm and we can really hear how well Veronica handles the bottom end on this one.
“Put Your Wig On Mama” takes us further North to Chicago, a song apparently written for Veronica’s mother. Veronica channels Chicago greats like Otis Spann on this one. On the sole instrumental Veronica moves into pure rock and roll territory on the appropriately titled “Ode To Jerry Lee” which is arguably the standout cut here.
Veronica’s vocals are strong. She sometimes resorts to vocal gymnastics, a tendency that is particularly evident on her cover of Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is My Baby” which is slowed down and played in an arrangement that recalls Gershwin’s “Summertime”. The three songs recorded on the venerable ‘Margaret’ include the second cover, Katie Webster’s “Whoo Whee Sweet Daddy”, which barrels along with Joel’s sax bubbling away behind the boogie rhythm. “Fool Me Twice” again has a New Orleans feel with pounding piano and a great left hand boogie, one of the songs without sax.
“The Memphis Train” is another boogie tune that rolls along at great pace as Veronica celebrates riding the 601, referencing a famous train service that ceased operating in 1968, a very long time before she was born!
This relatively short CD heralds the arrival on the scene of a major piano talent who seems equally at home across the gamut of blues and roots styles.
David Rotundo – So Much Trouble
Dreams We Share – 2020
12 tracks; 57 minutes
David Rotundo is from Canada and became obsessed with the blues after seeing James Cotton play in 1991. Bitten hard by the harmonica bug he traveled round US blues hot spots like Chicago, Memphis, Clarksdale, New Orleans and Austin. Returning to Toronto he played with local bands and had a stint with Jack De Keyser before starting his own band in 2001. He writes his own material and this is his fifth album, but the first for a new label started by another harmonica man, Lee Oskar (of War fame), who also produces.
David handles all lead vocals, harmonica and occasional guitar, alongside a large number of musicians. The core band is Ron Weinstein on organ, Milky Burgess on guitar, Dean Schmidt on bass and Andrew Cloutier on drums; Darian Asplund adds sax to six tracks, Phillip Peterson cello to two, Ed Weber piano to two and guitarists Skylar Mehal and Desmond Brown appear on one track each. Additional percussionists appear on five tracks – Joseph Ravi Albright (tabla), Denali Williams (assorted percussion), Thor Dietrichson and Ernesto Pedianco (congas). A host of backing vocalists are also involved: David himself, Lee Oskar, Annie Jantzer, Erik Yager, Chris Weortink, Nick Foster, Timothy Hill, Julia Vega, Brian Madsen and Ginger Woo.
The album opens with two real winners: “She’s Dynamite” is a rocking boogie with piano, guitar and sax beefing up the chorus, harp and organ taking the solos as David issues a ‘beware’ notice about the femme fatale he has met; David’s gravelly vocals work very well on “I Must Be Crazy”, a slower tune that brings Otis Rush to mind, particularly in the rhythm guitar work. “Funky Side Of Town” lives up to its title with plenty of wah-wah washes, the cello and backing vocals offsetting the chorus.
The title track “So Much Trouble” lyrically points fingers at how humanity is creating its own problems with disregard for the environment, as well as how we behave to each other. With sax, twin guitars and choral vocals, this is a big production number that gets its message across well, David’s central solo beautifully set over keyboard and guitar flourishes. Principal backing vocalist Annie Jantzer features on “Too Blue” as David tries to drink away his troubles, a theme that also features on “Drinking Overtime”, a rocking shuffle with amusing lyrics, sax and piano driving the rhythm and Ron’s organ swirling away behind David’s expressive harp.
Darian’s sultry sax is a key component on the moody “That Thing Called Love” as we return to matters of the heart before David ups the tempo again with the staccato rhythms of “Trying To Find It”, an enigmatic song about searching for eternal truths. “Foolish Love” is a gentle piano-led ballad with no drums or harmonica but does rather expose David’s vocal limitations and was the track that worked least well for this reviewer.
“Hard Times Coming” is one of three tracks on which David plays guitar. It’s a slow Delta blues with resonator guitar, bass and harp and lyrics typical of the style as David searches for peace of mind in difficult times. The other tracks on which he plays guitar appear at the end of the album: “Long Road” has an acoustic base with both David and Milky on guitars, with tabla, congas and cello adding an Eastern feel, choral backing vocals underlining a message of hope for our future; David closes the album with a solo reading of the traditional “Trouble In Mind”, lonesome harp accentuating the familiar lyrics of overcoming life’s tough times.
David Rotundo offers us a good demonstration of his talents as writer, singer and harmonica player across the varied palette of this enjoyable album.
Pop Album Reviews
When your eyes first alight on the cover artwork for Justin Bieber’s new album Justice, you might think to yourself, “I’ve been that hungover,” or “I, too, hate having my picture taken,” or, “This new Teenage Mutant Turtles reboot looks sick.” But only true Beliebers could see such a collection of questionable…
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Justin Bieber has announced the release of a new album called Justice, which will arrive on March 19th via RBMG/Def Jam Records. Justice marks Bieber’s sixth album to date and arrives a little more than a year after its predecessor, Changes. In a statement announcing the release of Justice, Bieber…
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Cobweb-blasting singing, brain-invading melodies and skin-scouring riffs offer no relief from this wrestling match with impending disaster
Climate crisis rock hasn’t exactly taken off in recent years. Mainstream music’s reliance on easily digestible emotional journeying grates awkwardly against the catharsis-vacuum that is the Earth’s current trajectory. Those who have tackled the topic have often taken circuitous routes – delegating to experts (the 1975 enlisted Greta Thunberg); shockingly reimagining the process as a triumph of malevolence (Anohni, Grimes) – but stalwart Brighton metallers Architects plump for a straightforward take on their ninth album, an hour-long wrestling match with impending doom and disaster.
Yet no matter the framing device – histrionic hardcore, glitchy electronica, dreamy balladeering – the doom comes out on top. All the cobweb-blasting screaming, brain-invading melodies and skin-scouring riffs provide none of their customary release when juxtaposed with the needling, inescapable horror of the lyrics; the spiralling, math-rock style detailing elsewhere only heightens the tension. The only thing that lightens the load is the occasional burst of sixth-form-poetry melodrama (see: Black Lungs, Animals).
On their ninth album, Architects offer one of their most melodic and beautifully crafted works yet, while Alice Cooper proves every bit as durable as the city he’s paying homage to
For an album written in the pandemic’s stasis, there’s a compelling amount of travel on Cave’s 18th album with the Bad Seeds