Album Review: Soul of a Woman by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings


AlbumSoul of a Woman
ArtistSharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
Release Date: 17 November 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Matter of Time,” “Come and Be a Winner,” “Rumors,”  “Searching for a New Day,” and “Call on God”
Thoughts: It’s hard to listen to this album without feeling tearful, not just because of the music, but the knowledge that Sharon Jones’ voice was silenced forever with her death last year.  The final Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings album seems to recognize her mortality with more down tempo tracks, calls for reconciliation, messages of peace, and finish with the gospel hymn “Call on God.” It’s not intended as a final statement, but it’s what we get and serves as a reminder of the beauty and power that the great Sharon Jones brought to the world.
Rating: ***1/2

 

 

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Album Review: Rest by Charlotte Gainsbourg


AlbumRest
Artist: Charlotte Gainsbourg
Release Date: 17 November 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Ring-a-Ring O’ Roses,” “Deadly Valentine,” and “Dan vos airs.”
Thoughts: The single “Deadly Valentine” is the standout track on Gainsbourg’s first album in six years, one that reflects on grief and loss on the death of her half-sister.  While there is an allure of a woman’s voice singing breathily in French, most of the album is full of synthesizer crunches and disco beats that sound like very generic electro-pop.
Rating: **

Album Review: Half-Light by Rostam


Album: Half-Light
Artist: Rostam
Release Date: 15 September 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Bike Dream” and “Don’t Let It Get To You”
Thoughts: Half-Light is the solo album debut for Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend. Like his former band’s recordings, the music here incorporates World Music sounds ranging from reggae to Brazilian Batucada to Indian raga, with layered musical effects and Rostam’s tenor rising above it all.  I have kind of mixed feelings, about the album although I warmed to it on repeated listens, but I still feel he’s trying too hard as a producer to make “art” losing himself in the process.
Rating: ***

 

 

Album Review: If All I Was Was Black by Mavis Staples


AlbumIf All I Was Was Black
ArtistMavis Staples
Release Date: 17 November 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Little Bit,” “If All I Was Was Black,” “Ain’t No Doubt About It,” and “Try Harder”
Thoughts:

One of my favorite musical trends of 2017 is the appearance of the legendary Mavis Staples as guest artist on various recordings.  First, Arcade Fire released “I Give You Power” on the eve of Inauguration Day in January:

Then staples added her gospel chops to Benjamin Booker’s statement on police killings of black people “Witness.”

Next Staples joined Pusha T on the virtual hip-hop/electronic band Gorillaz’ Trump-inspired track “Let Me Out.”

Now, at last, we have a full album of new songs from Mavis Staples herself reflecting on our fraught, divided times and what we need to do to fight against it.  Frequent Staples’ collaborator, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, produced the album, appears on one track, and wrote all the songs (quite remarkable when you think that means he wrote the title track).  Staples’ versatility that makes her such a strong asset as a guest artist with distinctly different bands is seen here as well as the music mixes gospel, soul, blues, folk, and Americana.  Lyrically, the civil rights icon is still fighting the good fight but recognizes that she has limitations and that she’s still called to love her enemy.  Mavis Staples’ legacy is already well-established, and this album is probably not going to be what she’s remembered for, but nevertheless it is great to have her voice confront the issues of our times.

Rating:  ***1/2

Album Review: Utopia by Björk


AlbumUtopia
Artist: Björk
Release Date: 24 November 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Arisen My Senses,” “Blissing Me,” “The Gate,” and “Tabula Rasa”
Thoughts: The latest release from Björk is a dense aural soundscape with the singer’s notable voice layered over musical instruments, electronic noises, and sound effects.  The first three songs are the strongest, with the rest of the album hard to differentiate, although I do like “Tabula Rasa” simply for the novelty of hearing Björk swearing like a sailor. The down tempo nature of the music combined with bird and whale calls makes it all feel like an elaborate nature sounds relaxation tape.  I miss how Björk would incorporate upbeat melodies and dance rhythms into her earlier recordings.  Nevertheless, if you like Björk, this is more of Björk being Björk, and than can never be a bad thing.
Rating: ***

Song of the Week: “Best Friend” by Sofi Tukker


Sofi Tukker is a New York City based dance pop duo consisting of Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern.  You may have heard it before because apparently it’s being used in commercials, but since I don’t have tv I’ve come to it with no preconceptions.  Anyhow, a song about friendship is ideal for Thanksgiving weekend, and it also has some nice beats.

 

 

Resistance Mixtape: Veterans Day


Veteran’s Day is the time we honor people who served in the military.  These are people who often have seen the horror of war and try to express this to those of use divorced from its reality, and even today are among those most opposed to war. My hope for this and every Veteran’s Day is that our military is used wisely and that there we don’t end up with more people to remember on future Memorial Days.

Bruce Springsteen :: “Born in the U.S.A” – The bombastic chorus is often misinterpreted as blind patriotism, but the verses tell of the long lasting effects on a veteran of the Vietnam War.

Creedence Clearwater Revival :: “Fortunate Son” – Who goes to war often has less to do with patriotism and more to do with one’s position in society.

Eric Bogle :: “The Green Fields of France” – November 11th commemorates the end of The Great War which was supposed to be “The War to End All Wars” but still young people are sent off to fight.

Phil Ochs :: “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” – Tells the story of a veteran of all the United States’ wars who decides to refuse to fight any loner.

Bill Withers :: “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” – Another view of the lasting damage on a veteran of war.

 

The Clancy Brothers :: “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” – The families and friends of veterans also suffer the iniquities of war.

 

Previous Mixtapes:

Album Review: Revelations by Shamir


AlbumRevelations
Artist: Shamir
Release Date: 3 November 27
Favorite Tracks: “90’s Kids,” “Blooming,” and “Straight Boy”
Thoughts:  Shamir Bailey’s debut album Ratchet was built on electronic beats and dance rhythms, making it club ready. His latest album is stunning stripped-down, pure pop melodies that draw on rock genres from 60’s girl groups to grunge.  The music doesn’t impress me much, but I do love Shamir’s soulful voice and how it emphasizes the striking lyrics of tracks like “90’s Kids” and “Straight Boy.”  It’s a short album (31 minutes), so give it a second listen if it doesn’t move you the first time.
Rating: ***

Album Reviews: Fever Ray, Blitzen Trapper, The Barr Brothers


This week, quick thoughts on three new albums I listened to today.

AlbumPlunge
Artist: Fever Ray
Release Date: 2017 October 27
Favorite Tracks: “Wanna Sip” and “IDK About You”
Thoughts: Fever Ray is the solo project of Swedish electronic musician Karin Dreijer, also of the duo The Knife. The album has some sick beats and synths, but Dreijer’s voice is unpleasant and the frequent profanity seems to be juvenile attempt to be shocking.
Rating: **1/2


Album: Wild and Reckless
Artist: Blitzen Trapper
Release Date: 2017 November 3
Favorite Tracks: “Joanna” and “Stolen Hearts”
Thoughts: A twangier, pure country outing from Blitzen Trapper grew out of a “rock opera” staged in their native Portland, OR that tells a sci-fi love story of two kids on the run.
Rating: **1/2


Album: Queens of the Breakers
Artist: The Barr Brothers
Release Date: 2017 October 13
Favorite Tracks: “You Would Have to Lose Your Mind” and “It Came To Me”
Thoughts: The Montreal-based Americana jam band with a harp received good reviews for their innovative sound, but the album sounds kind of like generic folk-pop to me.  Not my thing.
Rating: **

Song of the Week: “Matter of Time” by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings


On November 18, 2016, Sharon Jones died leaving behind a musical legacy and broken hearts everywhere. A year later, the final Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings album Soul of a Woman will be released on November 17, 2017.  The first single, a peace anthem called “Matter of Time” reminds us of what we lost and what we’ll always have from Miss Sharon Jones’ musical gift.

 

 

 

Album Review: Colors by Beck


Album: Colors
Artist: Beck
Release Date: October 13, 2017
Favorite Tracks: Nothing stands out
Thoughts: I’ve been a Beck fan since he emerged on the scene in the 1990s and even once performed in a Beck choral performance, so I had to check out this new album.  And it is rather dull.  Nothing offensive about it, it features upbeat pop tunes that may sound good in the background at a party, but nothing you’d want to come back to.  So it’s ok, but disappointing for Beck who has done better.
Rating: **

Song of the Week: “Deadly Valentine” by Charlotte Gainsbourg


“Deadly Valentine” is the lastest single from British-French actor and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg.  It’s a dancable track with lyrics that make wedding vows sound really creepy.  But this song is nowhere as creepy as “Lemon Incest.”  The song is featured on Gainsbourg’s newest Album Rest, due out on November 17.

 

Album Review: MASSEDUCTION by St. Vincent


AlbumMASSEDUCTION
ArtistSt. Vincent
Release Date: October 13, 2017
Favorite Tracks: none
Thoughts: I’m a longtime St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) fan and have written about her on this blog many times, so I was eager to hear her fifth album.  Sadly, it’s a disappointment.  Supposedly this album is her attempt to move to a more pop-oriented sound, so naturally that would be alienating to a long-time fan.  But I don’t think it even succeeds as a pop album as there are no catchy hooks and the grim lyrics sound maudlin over the kitschy sound. St. Vincent’s music may be inaccessible to many, but this is the first time that I find it to be dull.  I can’t help but feel that there’s a message in the cover of the album where St. Vincent is mooning her audience.
Rating: **

Music Discoveries: Tom Waits


Tom Waits is a veteran singer-songwriter whose voice is a combination of sidewalk preacher, carnival barker, beat poet, and barstool philosopher. I first heard of Waits in the 80s when he was known as the guy with the crazy, gravely voice.  But then I heard the track “Innocent When You Dream” on a compilation album and fell in love with the heartfelt beauty underneath what sounded like a drunk guy crooning at a bar.  I got the album Franks Wild Years and it remains one of my all time favorites, and I’ve checked in and out on Waits’ career over the years.  This is the first time I’ve listened to all of Waits’ catalog from beginning to most current, and let me tell you it’s not easy to listen to all that Waits’ music back-to-back-to-back, although it is a worthwhile exercise.

Tom Waits’ career can be summed up into three basic eras:

  • 1970s – Waits was a little more eccentric than his contemporaries, but listening to his early recordings and he seems to fit in with the singer-songwriters of the era. You might even imagine an alternate universe where his career followed the paths of the likes of James Taylor, Elton John, or Randy Newman.  His trademark gravely voice didn’t even make its debut until the third album, and in the seventies it was more of an homage to Louis Armstrong or Doctor John as Waits recorded jazz and blues tinged tunes.
  • 1980s – This decade marked the emergence of the iconic Waits’ style, verging between lost recordings of American and avant guarde music with unusual instrumentation and tunings.  The decade is marked by the trilogy of albums he’s most remembered for: Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987).
  • 1992 to present – While Waits’ music in this period remains experimental by the standards of contemporary popular music, and inspiration for “alternative music,”  it doesn’t vary much from the template he established in the 1980s.  Similarly, while 1990s and 2000s recordings include numerous gems and good albums overall, Waits is own worst enemy as a producer in that he allows the albums to be bloated with excess tracks that should be judiciously trimmed.  In short, don’t do what I did and listen to everything, but definitely seek out the good stuff.

Tom Waits hasn’t released anything new since 2011 or toured since 2008, but hopefully he has some songs left in him and there will be another Tom Waits era to look back on in the future.

Five Favorite Albums

  • Closing Time (1973) – definitely one of the great all-time debut albums, and the first three tracks are a strong start to any album.
  • Rain Dogs (1985) – Waits’ masterpiece and one of the great albums of the 1980s.
  • Franks Wild Years (1987) – the soundtrack to a play I’ve never seen, it remains a sentimental favorite
  • Bone Machine (1992) – Waits charges into the 1990s showing the alt-rockers how things are done with haunting lyrics and aural soundscape
  • Blood Money (2002) – these are songs from another play, but also reflect the misanthropy and pessimism of the post-Sept. 11th world under George W. Bush

Twenty-Five Favorite Songs

 

1. “Ol’ 55”

2. “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You”

3. “Virginia Avenue”

4. “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)”

5. “Jersey Girl”

6. “16 Shells from A Thirty-Ought-Six”

7. “In the Neighbourhood”

8. “Jockey Full of Bourbon”

9. “Hang Down Your Head”

10. “Downtown Train”

11. “Hang on St. Christopher”

12. “Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)”

13. “Yesterday is Here”

14. “Way Down in the Hole”

15. “Cold Cold Ground”

16. “Jesus Gonna Be Here”

17. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”

18. “T’ Ain’t No Sin”

19. “Hold On”

20. “House Where Nobody Lives”

21. “Misery is the River of the World”

22. “God’s Away on Business”

23. “Flowers Grave”

24. “Hoist That Rag”

25. “Chicago”

Album Review: The Kid by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith


Album: The Kid
ArtistKaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Release Date: October 6, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “A Kid” and “In the World, But Not of the World”
Thoughts: An experimental synthesizer album with music that moves from danceable to the cinematic.  There are a lot of hints and references to outside works but there’s also a feeling that it’s not going anywhere.  This album may require a few more listens, but as of now I’m not completely sold
Rating: ***

Song of the Week: “Almost Like Praying” by Lin-Manuel Miranda


“Almost Like Praying” is a benefit song by composer and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda to raise funds for relief efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.  The title of the song is a lyric from “Maria” a song in the musical West Side Story about the female lead character from Puerto Rico.  In addition to the recognition that the name Maria will never be seen the same in Puerto Rico after this disaster, the song lists the name of every town in Puerto Rico.  A team of all-star singers perform the song to a reggaeton beat.  Visit the Almost Like Praying website to get the song and/or make a donation to the Hispanic Federation. Learn more about the song in this interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda on NPR’s All Songs Considered.

 

Resistance Mixtape: Indigenous Peoples’ Day


Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day so the mixtape celebrates the native people of North America and their continuing struggle against discrimination and elimination by European colonizers.

Buffy Sainte-Marie:: “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”

Indigo Girls :: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”

A Tribe Called Red x Prolific The Rapper :: “Black Snakes (Remix)”

Peter Gabriel :: “San Jacinto” the culture clash between Native America and present-day America

Neil Young :: “Cortez the Killer”

 

Grant-Lee Phillips :: “Buffalo Hearts”

Robbie Robertson :: “Showdown at Big Sky”

 

I’m sure there are some knowledgeable people who can add to this mixtape with some terrific music, especially by Native American artists.  If so, post them in the comments.