Saturday, July 31, 2010

What I'm Listening To

I just found a copy of Sly and the Family Stone's trippy masterpiece There's a Riot Goin' On.  It's a claustrophobic, intimate record. Drugs may have been involved.

I also bought a two-disc compilation of producer/singer Linval Thompson's stuff. He was somewhere in the Horace Andy/Dennis Brown/Bob Marley vein. I just got his Six Babylon Recently, which is pretty great. The one downside to his groovy, heavy, dready music is that ever single song is about loving Jah and/or having natty dreads. Except for this song, about how much he likes weed.

Finally, I loaded my iPod up with Iron Maiden so that I could listen to the sweet, sweet sounds of Bruce Dickenson wailing away on "Run to the Hills" while packed like a sardine can on Muni on my way home.
Rock the fuck out.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Giano Review

I reviewed Giano's Beautiful World for RapReviews this week. Backpack Christian rap. Liked the backpack, wasn't feeling the Christian, but if you are a hip hop head who is at church every Sunday, cop this.

The Definitive Collection of Federal Records Review

This two-disc compilation covers the output of Federal Records from the mid-sixties through the early eighties. The label was founded by Kenneth Khouri in the early sixties. Khouri got his start in the 1950s cutting singles of mento records, and was on the front lines as ska exploded and then evolved into rocksteady, eventually settling into reggae.
The songs are arranged chronologically. Disc one starts out with the bright, raw sound of ska, including the Maytals' “My Daily Food” and Eric “Monty” Morris’s “In the Garden.” They are upbeat, energetic, and infectious, but they pale in comparison to the more sophisticated rocksteady songs. One of the first rocksteady songs recorded is included, Hopeton Lewis’s “Take It Easy.” One listen to that track and you’ll understand why a generation of Jamaicans abandoned the energetic but simple pulse of ska for the cooler, smoother rocksteady groove. Hopeton Lewis’s “Sounds and Pressure” is also on the disc, along with tracks by the Paragons and the Gaylettes.
One of the hallmarks of the Federal label was reggae remakes of pop tunes. There is a range of covers on this compilation, from Englebert Humperdink's “Talking Love,” to the Monkees’ “Its Nice To Be With You” to Dusty Springfield’s “Son of A Preacher Man.” Some of these covers, like the Gaylettes’ version of “Preacher Man,” are brilliant, but there are examples of pop songs that would have been better left alone. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s weepy “Alone Again Naturally” was anything but a natural fit for a reggae remake, as The Now Generations muzak version attests.
As the music changed from rocksteady to reggae, Federal’s output acquired a pop, cosmopolitan sheen. Disc two, which spans 1973-1982, is far from sufferah music. The polished production strips the songs of any danger, edge, or dread. This is reggae for dinner parties with polite society, music for red wine rather than spliffs. It’s still enjoyable, but is a marked contrast from other reggae producers of the era. This is definitely not the Black Ark.
High points include Ken Boothe and B.B. Seaton’s soul scorcher “(It’s the Way) Nature Planned It,” Delroy Wilson’s “I’m Still Waiting,” and Bob Andy’s “Fire Burning.” Other notable artists include Ernie Smith, Johnny Nash, and Marcia Griffiths. The album comes with excellent liner notes written by reggae historian Steve Barrow, and lots of photos from the era. All in all it’s a nice overview of a very fertile 18-year period of Jamaican musical history, and a good documentation of the Federal label’s contribution to that history.

Read more:

Article first published as Music Review: The Definitive Collection of Federal Records (1964-1982) on Blogcritics.

Romain Virgo and Gyptian Reviews

Romain Virgo - Romain Virgo
Romain Virgo is a twenty-year-old Jamaican singer who has just released a stellar self-titled debut album. I’ve seen YouTube videos of him covering Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” on Digicel’s Rising Stars show, which he won in 2007. It is a tribute to his soulful voice that he does the original proud. Simply put, Romain has a gorgeous voice, one of the best I’ve heard in a while. It is smooth as silk, warm as a Jamaican summer, and rich with emotion. He conveys longing, joy, sadness, and heartbreak, often in the same song.

The album starts off with “Mi Caan’ Sleep,” a deceptively upbeat track. Over the bouncy “Feel Good” riddim, Romain sings about stress-induced insomnia. The verses are all about the violence and problems in the world, but the chorus sounds like a celebration. He acknowledges the bad in the world, but refuses to let it get him down. He’s less joyful on “Murderer,” an angry condemnation of violent youth, warning them “Jah Jah gonna school ya.”

Romain doesn’t spend too much of his time worrying about trouble and strife. Much of the album is R&B influenced slow jams, complete with the occasional (and totally unnecessary) Auto-Tune. It is a testament to his talent that he makes cheesy songs like “Love Doctor” palatable. While I wasn’t as impressed with the numerous love ballads, the uptempo tracks like “Customer Care” and “Live Mi Life” were enough to win me over. This is an excellent album and a must-hear for anyone into contemporary reggae.

Gyptian - Hold You
If Romain Virgo is an artist you need to hear, Gyptian is an artist you can’t escape from. His hit “Hold You” has been ubiquitous, most recently appearing as a remix with Nikki Minaj. Gyptian specializes in slick love songs, and comes off like a Jamaican Usher. He has a good voice, although like Romain Virgo, dabbles unnecessarily in Auto-Tune.

Most of this was too polished for my tastes, although I did enjoy “Leave Us Alone,” and I have to admit that Gyptian does what he does very well. Hold You is tasteful, well-done babymaking music, pure and simple. This is sure to be the soundtrack for countless late night romantic encounters. If you can’t get enough of “Hold You” the song, then Hold You the album should be more than enough to give you your Gyptian fix.

Article first published as Music Review: Romain Virgo and Gyptian on Blogcritics.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Althea and Donna

Tell me that's not a somewhat unfortunate cover. Althea and Donna had a big hit in 1977 with "Uptown Top Ranking," which in turn reworked a riddim that had been used numerous times, including songs by Anton Ellis, Marica Atkins, and Trinity. It's an amazing song. The album, not so much.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Side Effect

I reviewed Side Effect's Grown Man Grizzly mixtape this week on RapReviews. I'm working on about six or seven different reggae reviews for albums that were sent to me, some of which are pretty good, some not so much.

I also downloaded the English Beat's second album, 1981's Wha'ppen?. I had it on cassette, and I have a crappy vinyl version, but now I can listen to it on my iPod. The Beat were part of the 2-tone movement that included the Specials and Madness. Their first album was ska, but their second album was more reggae, and their final album, Special Beat Service, is a pretty good pop album. After the Specials, they were the best part of that movement, and Dave Wakeling still tours with a new band as the English Beat. They are ok in their new incarnation, a decent nostalgia act. I passed him on Polk Street a few years ago, which gave me a thrill.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Homeboy Sandman Review/What I'm Listening To

I reviewed Homeboy Sandman's The Good Sun on RapReviews this week.  I compared him to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, but by way of a compliment. I'm loving it. The verbal dexterity of Eminem, only not a dick.

I've been meaning to listen to Sun Ra for a while, ever since he was mentioned on Quasimoto's 2005 album The Further Adventures of Lord Quas. Trippy, spacy jazz? Yes, please.

The new M.I.A. came out today. I'm sure I'll end up picking it up, but I'm not excited about it. I'm over her schtick - revolutionary posturing without really saying much, all from a woman who is neither a good rapper nor a singer. I still love Kala, but I feel like I've moved on. Maybe I'll change my mind.

Die Antwoord are playing in SF this Friday at a tiny club. I didn't buy tickets. I did buy tickets to see Thao Nguyen and some other mellow dudes next Friday, and Thee Oh Sees and Yellow Fever in August. Debating if I want to go to Treasure Island this year. Great line up, shitty logistics. The Outside Lands festival, a twenty minute walk from my house, has a pretty uninspiring line up this year.

Polvo, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and the new Wavves are all on rotation in my iPod. And a bunch of reggae. This week it's Linval Thompson. Plus I've been listening to Gregory Isaacs in the morning. Nothing better than lovers rock at six am.

I was busy writing a statement of purpose for grad school and debating if I really wanted to spend the money and time to get a second degree. If I went back to school it would probably mean less time devoted to writing about music. Although that would be replaced by more time writing about how a nonprofit organization should run. Hm.

Also, Joy Division. One of my favorite bands ever. If you don't like them, you're wrong. Or better adjusted than I.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

O.J. Simpson Review

Article originally published on Rapreviews
Guilty Simpson :: O.J. Simpson :: Stones Throw Records 

[O.J. Simpson]I first saw Guilty Simpson about four years ago at a Stones Throw show, opening for Madlib. That show, along with his verses on "Watch Your Step" off of Percee P's "Perseverance," and "Take Notice" on Dilla's "Ruff Draft," made Guilty seem like the next big thing: a rapper who could be grimy as hell and still hang with the backpack crowd. Guilty was a Dilla protege, and  Dilla was supposed to be handling production on Guilty's debut. Then Dilla died,  and by the time "Ode to the Ghetto" appeared in March of 2008, there were hardly any Dilla joints on it.
Having Madlib, Black Milk, and Oh No pick up the slack was a nice consolation prize. While I enjoyed "Ode to the Ghetto", I respectfully disagree with this website's perfect rating of that album. It's a good album, but Guilty's rhyming sometimes resorted to gangster rap cliches, and I had trouble understanding what songs like "Getting Riches/Getting Bitches" were supposed to be the antidote for. Did we really need more thuggish gangsta rap? Aren't there about 100 street rap albums released each month that fill that niche? Rather than feeling like the Next Big Thing, "Ode to the Ghetto" was just more of the same.
I was hopeful when I learned that Madlib and Guilty were going to be collaborating on an album. Whatever his flaws, Guilty is still a solid rapper, and the combination of his straightforward gangsta rap over Madlib's wacked-out beats is brilliant. Madlib adds some variety and experimentation to Guilty's no-nonsense flow, and Guilty in turn grounds Madlib, keeping him from going off into the deep end. It's a perfect partnership, with one major problem: the skits.
I'm not a big skit person. Even skits that are funny get old the tenth time you hear them. They generally drag down an album, screwing up its momentum. That's especially the case with the skits on "O.J. Simpson." See, the collaboration between Madlib and Guilty goes beyond Madlib supplying the beats. He also does TWELVE skits on the album, which means that exactly half of the songs on "O.J. Simpson" are skits. You know it's bad when it starts off with a prelude and then an intro. You have to listen to two skits before you even get into the actual music. The skits are mostly made up of what appears to be Melvin Van Peebles routines set to music. Some of them are pretty funny, but not twelve, and not on repeated listens. Madlib got the mix right on the last Quasimoto album, mixing in a few soundbites in with the rest of the songs. On "O.J. Simpson, " it's total overload and would be a deal breaker except for the fact that you can delete his tracks from your playlist.
Let me be clear: Madlib's beats on this disc are top notch, and includes some of his better work. It's the skits that are half-assed, stoned experimentations that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Madlib is doing an album a month through his "Medicine Shop" series, along with a lot of other projects, and I'm sensing some fatigue. He'd be better off focusing on quality over quantity, waiting until he had something truly great to put out rather than selling all of his ideas at a premium.
Even with the skit overkill, "O.J. Simpson" is a great album. Guilty continues to come off like this generation's Ice Cube, an angry yet thoughtful rapper who can be surprisingly reflective underneath his tough exterior. "Cali Hills" is a nice recounting of his relationship with the late J Dilla. "Karma of a Kingpin" is about how he admired the gangsters in his Detroit neighborhood as a kid. "Back On the Road Again" is about the grind of touring, and the pressures it puts on his relationship. The centerpiece of the album is "Coroner's Music." I've been listening to it nonstop since it was released as a single at the beginning of the year, and I'm still not sick of it. Madlib delivers one of his nastiest, evilest beats, and Guilty is absolutely on fire:
"Coroners must love my shit for certain
I keep 'em working
In this rap tug-of-war I yank the cord and watch them fall down
My report is lethal
No equal
No survivors
No sequel
None compare
They crumble when the monster stares
I see through you
My heat do to you
What they shoulda did"

Guilty is joined by Strong Arm Steady on "Outside," (where he threatens "to turn your little house party into UFC"). and Frank on "Scratch Warning," but for the most part, this is Guilty's show. He's still not the most dexterous rapper, wielding his rhymes like blunt instruments. What he does offer is old-fashioned gangsta rap, hard as hell and with a sense of humor underneath all the posturing and scowling.
"O.J. Simpson" continues to deliver on the promise that Guilty Simpson showed on his early work, and sees him continuing to develop and hone his craft. Madlib's beats are an excellent foil to his rhymes, and the two compliment one another. The real weak point is Madlib's skits, which show that the Beatkonducta is overextended, and has lost the ability to self-edit. While I admire Madlib's work ethic, he should explore the less is more philosophy. In the meantime, "O.J. Simpson" is best enjoyed with the skits cut out of it.
Music Vibes7 of 10 Lyric Vibes8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes7.5 of 10

Wavves Review

King of the Beach

We all lose our shit sometimes. Hopefully we do it in the privacy of our own homes, far away from mobile phone cameras. Occasionally it’s in front of coworkers or family members, and we have to mumble an awkward apology later. Unfortunately, Wavves frontman Nathan Williams had the misfortune of losing his shit while playing a show at a festival in Spain curated by Pitchfork, the very website that had helped catapult him into fame. The site took special glee in tearing down the man they had been so overeager to promote in the months prior. It was a spectacular, embarrassing, and very public meltdown, indie rock’s own version of Britney Spears (although much less insane, and with less schadenfreude).

So here’s the deal. Nathan made a bunch of songs by himself as Wavves at his parents' house. His poppy, fuzzed out punk generated a lot of critical adoration, perhaps in greater measure than they deserved. Wavves became the Next Thing in a media landscape that is obsessed with the new. I listened to about five seconds of Wavves' first two albums, decided they were too noisy, and moved on to my own personal Next Thing. It was clear in the five seconds I spent with Wavves that they were on to something, but I couldn’t hang with their shitty production values.

So when I heard that their new album was recorded in an actual studio (Sweet Tea Recordings in Oxford, Mississippi) by a guy who had worked with Modest Mouse (Dennis Herring), I was immediately intrigued. What could Wavves do working with good equipment and a guy who knew how to record music? The results prove that Wavves is much more than a flash in the pan, and that Pitchfork’s championing of the band was spot on.

Opening track “King of the Beach” is a blast of wistful pop punk, with Nathan singing “Let the sun burn my eyes.” It’s still fuzzy, but the sound has been cleaned up considerably since his last record, and the result is that you can actually hear what he’s playing and singing. It’s like the band has had Lasik surgery, and all the fuzzy shapes are clear now.

I was totally sold on Wavves by the second song, “Super Soaker,” which demonstrates the strength of Williams’ songwriting. It also shows elements of psychedelic music. In fact, this album is like a mash-up of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys, and early '90s punk. There are harmonies inherited from Brian Wilson, whimsical trippiness handed down from early Floyd, and the cynicism and ennui of '90s alterna-rock ranging from Smashing Pumpkins to the Pixies to the Dead Milkmen.

Wavves is also an actual band this time around. Williams met drummer Billy Hayes and bassist Stephen Pope after his disastrous Spanish show. The two were playing with the late, volatile Jay Reatard, and must have figured that Williams would be a saner bandmate than Reatard. The addition of a drummer and bassist on two of the tracks rounds out the sound, making Wavves fuller while maintaining a garage punk rawness.

Still, Wavves is Williams’ show, and his personality dominates. There’s a combination of snottiness and self-hatred that is winning rather than off-putting. Williams never sounds pathetic or whiny, always balancing his smart-assness with enough humility to make it palatable. “I won’t ever die/I’ll go surfing in my mind,” Williams wails on “Idiot,” before confessing, “I’d say I’m sorry, but it wouldn’t mean shit.”

Forget what you think you know about Wavves. King of the Beach is a stellar album, and proves that they are the real deal. It’s a hazy, punky, psychedelic blast of sun, surf, and self-loathing, perfect for your next barbecue.

Article first published as Music Review: Wavves - King of the Beach on Blogcritics.

Beres Hammond Review

Article first published as Music Review: Beres Hammond - Just A Man on Blogcritics.

While he might be best known for his nineties hits, Beres Hammond has been recording music for over thirty years. He got his start in the early seventies with reggae group Zap Pow, and cut two solo records before officially leaving the group in 1979. Just A Man is his second album, recorded in 1979 at Joe Gibbs studio, and newly rereleased on VP Records.
While I generally associate Joe Gibbs with dancehall and roots reggae, Just A Man is closer to disco soul. It starts off with the uptempo song “Music Is A Positive Vibration,” which sounds a lot more like Barry White than Bob Marley. The song has a four-on-the-floor beat, funky bass, horns, and strings; think Studio 54 not a Kingston sound system. The only hint of Jamaica is Hammond’s slight accent.

“Do This World A Favour” and “Keep My Wheel Turning” are the other disco tracks on the album. While the disco elements are dated, the songs still work, mainly because the songwriting is strong. “Do This World A Favour” is an impassioned plea to live right, and “Keep My Wheel Turning” is scorching R&B.

It’s not all disco, though. Many of the songs could easily be lovers rock if they had a reggae riddim. “John Crazy” is a slower track that uses reggae instrumentation and intonations to create a slow-burning soul song. “Just A Man” is a powerful ballad, followed by the pining “I’m Lonely.” It could give Al Green a run for his money, as could “Let Me Love You Tonight.” The disc is rounded out with two tracks not included on the original album: “Seasons,” which was released as a single, and “Set Me Free,” which Hammond recorded with Zap Pow.

Just A Man ‘s soulful disco is not what you might expect from Joe Gibbs Studio, but it’s done well. This album is considered an under appreciated gem by many reggae fans. This reissue gives you the chance to hear it yourself.

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