Sunday, August 31, 2008

I Decided.

I decided that despite some serious mark missing (like the album's entire last half), I can't truly dislike Solange's new album. I really only like three songs (the Motown steeped first single "I Decided," the clever Cee-Lo co-penned "TONY" and the bittersweet and gorgeous "I Would've Been the 1"), but I still can't dismiss the effort. At it's best, this album is glossy, fresh and snappy, and at it's worst, it needs better arrangement and production.

She's the slightly left of center younger sister of a bonafied pop queen, and that's evident. But she is also her own artist, and that's evident on this album as well. And although she is only 22, the girl knows a thing or two about the ins and outs of relationships, and that comes across lyrically. She got pregnant, married and divorced all before she was old enough to drink, and this album is not just typical post-teenage warbling. It's all her. And I commend that. Not to mention she's somewhat of an underdog: she had a dream team of producers and collaborators (Pharell, Raphael Saadiq, Cee-Lo, Bilal and Mark Ronson to name a few) but she had to basically beg most of them to work with her. That sounds sad, but in a way, it's actually great. I guess being Beyonce's baby sister does not guarantee much in the way of star treatment.

Ultimately, Solange herself puts it best: "I was a little different/I didn't do what the fast girls do/Study my rhythm, you can speed me up when you want to." She's trying, she's branching out, and hopefully, her next release will perfectly execute this album's ambitious vision of a "'60s/70s vintage soul record with hints of electronica." I look forward to it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dr. Feelgood.

In the wake of Jerry Wexler's passing, I have been listening to lots of classic Atlantic Aretha. And I mean lots. I was fortunate enough to be sent a copy of Aretha Franklin: Rare & Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul when I was a DJ back in Boston, and since the legendary producer passed, I have been giving it HEAVY play at home. Outtakes, demos, and previously unreleased sketches of her great stuff from the '60s and '70s ("Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)", her cover of "Fool On The Hill", "Spirit In The Dark") are presented as first recorded: bare bones, basic instrumentation, very little production and therefore, an unavoidable emphasis on Aretha's dynamite voice and skilled piano playing. The tracks aren't the greatest to listen to for jamming purposes, but if you want insight into the recording process, and the before and after treatment her songs received, this double disc is certainly on point. Every cough, "one more take" and foot tap is captured, and you get to hear the blueprint of what later became Franklin's, and Wexler's, masterpieces. So, in a belated tribute to the production god behind Ray, Aretha, Wilson, and uh, the birth of R&B (a phrase he is attributed with coining) here is a rather gorgeous and bluesy rendition of the Queen belting out a classic Wexler produced gem, live in 1968, in all her glory:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Hot Buttered Soul.

This weekend marks the passing of two remarkable entertainers, one a ground breaking comic, the other, a bonafied soul genius.

I first became familiar with Bernie Mac in Spike Lee's The Original Kings of Comedy. I still pee my pants when I think about the line "where's the cookies and shit?" and his routine about taking care of his drug addicted sister's children while he and his wife try to settle into retirement and their second honeymoon phase. A student of Richard Pryor, his raw, unapologetic and personal style of comedy made this Chicagoan truly special. He will be missed.

Isaac Hayes was one of the first artists that truly exposed me to soul as a kid. I would hear the "Theme from Shaft" on V103 and just light up: the "shut your mouth!" line, the booming build up...the song was epic, to say the very least. His cool and calm delivery, the fantastic deepness of his voice, was unlike anything I had heard before, or since. And as I got older, I realized that he was much more than the bald dude in the gold chains; he was responsible for the majority of Stax's greatness, and if Atlantic Records was the house that Ahmet built, then Stax was the house the Isaac built, hit by hit. A behind the scenes man with David Porter, Hayes came into his own with his landmark Hot Buttered Soul album, and his cover of "Walk On By" is by far and away one of my all time favorite songs. The intensity of his performance style is best captured in Wattstax, where he headlined, stopping the show with his outrageous entrance, removing his cloak to reveal gold genie pants, a glittering chain link shirt and a visceral and magnificent musical aura. He may be best remembered by my generation as Chef (and for his angry departure from "South Park" due to his Scientologist beliefs) but to me and the soul music world, he will always be known as a true innovator and the number one "Soul Man."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Telegram to Hip Hop

This was going to be a post all about how I'm mad about the state of hip hop. About how hip hop is dead. How its artists are pissing away its potential by not really giving their all, by half assing their records and doing even worse on stage. But somehow (I think Nas had a lot to do with this) "hip hop is dead" came to be code for "long live hip hop," employing in its defense the same subtle bricolage that makes the genre so powerful. So fine, my hip hop is dead post has been derailed. I guess that's a good sign. But hip hop is far from thriving. To use a completely unfair and perhaps even irresponsible analogy, it's like alt rock before the early-90's boom, except there's no Nirvana on the horizon and no Sonic Youth guiding the young'ns.

So: LONG LIVE HIP HOP. Certainly, the old guard is falling into pieces as more and more emcees we once respected and admired resort to releasing terrible, sprawling (not in the good way) records with no direction. Here's a hint for all you struggling-yet-established emcees: if you're feeling like your album doesn't flow right, and isn't running cohesively, adding more producers to it will NOT help the situation. In fact, it will do just the opposite, taking the album even further from its central point, whatever that may be. (Another thing: try to HAVE a central point every once in a while.)

Anyway, I can rant all day about the problems with hip hop, but I'm just going to call it like I see it: close mindedness is killing hip hop. Rappers, DJs, producers, even label execs need to be much more outgoing as far as trying new things and looking for new sounds. As it stands, all we're looking for is the new Jay-Z. This is not what we need, and besides, he's not coming, and nor is Hov himself going to brush himself off and start making great albums again. Blueprint 3 is going to let you down even harder than Blueprint 2, if you catch my drift. Take a risk every once in a while. I'm not saying that there's no one doing this right now, I'm just saying that more people should be.

Take us out, Saul.

Saul Williams - Telegram (acapella, live at the Boulder Theatre) [YouTube]

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I'm Still In Love With You.

While it's too early to actually start believing that D'Angelo's new album is dropping this fall (readthisexcellentSpinpieceRIGHTNOW), it is definitely not too early to deem certain artists' efforts as the Best of far. And unless you don't have a heart or working hammers, anvils and stirrups, then you know that the Rev. Al Green's Lay It Down is quite possibly the greatest "classic" soul album to emerge since well, the initial Soulquarian movement that spawned Voodoo. And that isn't surprising, considering ?uestlove was at the producer helm for both.

At least three years in the making, Green's "real" comeback hadn't really been executed to perfection until this Ahmir Thompson and James Poyser dream project came to fruition at Electric Lady: Dap-King horns, Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend (even his black Liberace schtick can't taint his contribution on the lovely and twinkling duet "Stay With Me (By the Sea)"), Jaguar Wright and of course, the late and great Chalmers "Spanky" Alford flesh out what already was a promising and titillating concept: take the Rick Rubin/Jack White M.O. (retooling an icon's sound ever so slightly with the benefit of younger producers/younger working musicians aesthetics, while expanding on what made said icon so great in the first place, also known as not fucking with an already good thing and trying to make a legend play catch up with the Top 40 club) and apply it to the last working living soul legend. It had been ?uest's dream to do so (and he has previously turned down Stevie Wonder, citing too much pressure and personal anxiety over that hypothetical project) and he knew he could do it. It was just a matter of making Blue Note realize that they had dropped the ball, and kindly asking Willie Mitchell to stand back and let the youngsters take the reins.

The resulting sessions unfolded the same way the famed Voodoo recording sessions did: no pressure, a slow layering process, and a heavy editing hand. If a song worked, they came back to it a few months later just to make sure it still smacked of epicness. Jam sessions, writing while rehearsing, and of course, simplicity paved the way for the album I personally have been waiting for since I was a little kid. I grew up on Al and the other soul and R&B greats, but I grew up on what my mother and her generation experienced first hand. I could and did listen to Let's Stay Together a million times, but even as a child couldn't help but think, if he's still alive, why isn't he making music like this anymore? And despite his gospel era, the truth was, he wasn't making music like he did at Hi Records thirty years ago. He could, but he wasn't. And part of that is the unfortunate fate many of our Hall of Famers face: act like you're still 20 years-old to appeal to the 20 year-old set, or else you are a relic, or at best, starring in an awkward Victoria's Secret commercial.

Lay It Down combines the lush strings of Green's Memphis days with the sharp and full horns of his '70s reign (courtesy of the Dap-Kings), and lucky for us and Green, his voice has not changed one octave since he first started. Every single moan, squeal and emotive vocal arpeggio is there, matched by the basic organ styling of Poyser, crisp and simple drums of Thompson and the lilting and gorgeous guitar riffs of Alford. This record is Green's first Top 10 album since 1973. It is the most organic and natural sounding execution he has attempted since his beautiful and raw "farewell" to the secular world, 1977's The Belle Album. It is without any doubt, any hype, any bullshit, an immediate classic.