Posts Tagged ‘ Soul ’

In Memoriam Dr. John 1941-2019


Dr. John was a gateway artist to me. While discovering the musical traditions of New Orleans, Dr. John was just “rocky” enough to have any sort of appeal on the staunch hardrocker I was at the time. By mixing the New Orleans jazz tradition with the funk DNA of the town and some psychedelic rock grooves, Dr. John basically had something for fans of all genres. His sleazy voice and jumpy, slightly Carribean piano parts immediately recognizable, while the dangerous voodoo-inspired, vibe in some of his tracks is still as hypnotizing today as it was in the late sixties. Malcolm John Rebennack, as was his real name – “Mac” to his friends – died of a heart attack yesterday at the age of 77.

New Orleans royalty

As I’m quite sure was the case for many white rockers, my first time hearing Dr. John was his solo debut album ‘Gris-Gris’ from 1968. The album can be downright weird at times, but I was intrigued from the first notes right down until the last. The seductive grooves of ‘Mama Roux’ and the irresistible darkness of ‘I Walk On Guilded Splinters’ never wear off their welcome and I can’t be the only one who feels like that, as the latter is among one of the most covered non-traditional songs from Louisiana.

Before that album was released, however, Rebennack already made quite a career as a musician. Originally aspiring to be a professional guitar player, he was shot through the ring finger of his left hand in 1960 and eventually settled on the piano as his main instrument. His style was clearly influenced by another New Orleans legend, Professor Longhair, but he ran with it and sort of modernized the style without forsaking any of the swing and looseness that makes New Orleans jazz and funk so typical that it really can only be made in that particular area. He would appear on many records as a session musician before embarking on his solo ventures.

Throughout the seventies, Rebennack released one great record after the other. His 1973 album ‘In The Right Place’ in particular was a gathering of New Orleans royalty, with The Meters backing him and Allen Toussaint producing. The record, and the powerful single ‘Right Place Wrong Time’ in particular, was when he crossed over to the mainstream. It was hardly his only good song of the decade though; ‘Loop Garoo’, the lengthy ‘Angola Anthem’, ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Qualified’ are just a few of the masterpieces he released that decade, while ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ (1972) is one of the most exuberant celebrations of New Orleans’ musical history ever released.

Essence

While the eighties were unkind to almost anybody not playing synth pop or metal, Rebennack kept on releasing music that though not as inspired as his seventies work was enjoyable enough. In the meantime, there were session gigs he gladly joined. His return to form came in 1992, however, with ‘Goin’ Back To New Orleans’. An effort comparable to ‘Dr. John’s Gumbo’ twenty years prior, the album focuses on what New Orleans has to offer musically, from the gorgeous classical roots of the Gottschalk tribute ‘Litanie Des Daints’ to the standards ‘Carless Love’ and ‘Goodnight Irene’, the latter in a surprisingly bombastic rendition. The title track, Rebennack’s interpretation of a Joe Liggins tune, is a horn-heavy masterpiece.

Since that album reconnected him to his essence, Rebennack kept frequently releasing records, some of which are nothing short of incredible. In fact, not too long ago, ‘Locked Down’ (2012) introduced him to a whole new audience by teaming up with The Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach. The album is sort of an update of his seventies formula, including career highlights like ‘Big Shot’, ‘My Children, My Angels’ and the title track, with a big shot of psychedelic rock. Those who followed Rebennack’s career would not have been surprised though, as he had shared amazing albums like ‘Tribal’ (2010) and ‘The City That Care Forgot’ (2008) not too long before his Auerbach collaboration.

On Rebennack’s 73rd birthday, I was fortunate enough to see him live with his band. Not a perfect show by any means; the band was almost too loose and trombone player Sarah Morrow hogging the spotlight got on my nerves after a while. Also, it was obvious that the Doctor was not in the best physical shape anymore. His musical feeling did not suffer even the slightest bit, however, with especially his improvisational skills being impressive without being too ostentatious. Clearly a natural musician at work.

According to his own words, Dr. John leaves behind “a lot of children”. My condoleances go out to them. What he also left behind is an impressive body of work that deserves to be celebrated.

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Album of the Week 21-2018: Dana Fuchs – Love Lives On


Not unlike Beth Hart, Dana Fuchs has both the fortune and the misfortune of kind of sounding like Janis Joplin. In fact, both of them were cast to play Joplin in the musical ‘Love, Janis’. The comparison is a compliment, but also sells them short. Fuchs’ new album ‘Love Lives On’ is the ultimate proof of that. Musically, the album is much more reminiscent of the great southern soul records put out by Stax Records than any album Joplin ever was a part of. ‘Love Lives On’ is not a hollow exercies in nostalgia though; this is beautiful, timeless music.

Fuchs’ backing band on ‘Love Lives On’ features a a couple of soul veterans, among which drummer Steve Potts and organist Reverend Charles Hodges. They certainly add to the album’s authentic soul vibe, but what really makes the whole thing work is the excellent songwriting courtesy of Fuchs and her long-time guitarist Jon Diamond. While a lot of contemporary albums in this style rely heavily on the grooves and musical interaction, every song on ‘Love Lives On’ stands out and will stick to your memory. Fuchs’ smokey, raw-edged, yet highly melodic vocals are the icing on that delicious cake.

Another thing that makes ‘Love Lives On’ a pleasure to listen to is its nearly flawless flow. It makes you want to listen to the album all the way through. There are a couple of more americana-tinged songs grouped together near the end of the record that, while good – ‘Battle Lines’ is gorgeous – would have worked better if they were distributed more evenly across the album. The rest of the tracks vary nicely in tempo and intensity, moving pleasantly between upbeat soul tracks like opening track ‘Backstreet Baby’ and powerful ballads like the purring organ-based gospel of ‘Faithful Sinner’.

Traditional soul tracks like the horn-heavy ‘Callin’ Angels’, the euphoric ‘Same Sunlight’ and the relaxed ‘Sittin’ On’ would not have sounded out of place on one of Otis Redding’s records. Fuchs even made Redding’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ her own completely. Standout tracks for me are ‘Sad Solution’ and ‘Sedative’, both of which are built upon an insistent, almost dangerous, yet not too propulsive groove. It is possible that the underlying sense of anger appeals to the hardrocker in me. The supreme build-up from its subdued verses to its triumphant chorus turns ‘Ready To Rise’ into a highlight as well. So does its guitar solo.

‘Love Lives On’ is slightly less “rocky” in approach than ‘Love To Beg’ and the blues influences aren’t as pronounced as on ‘Bliss Avenue’, but that should not be a turn-off. This is one of the best soul albums released in many years. It has simply everything you could wish for if you like the genre. Each song features spirited grooves, intensely passionate vocals and a musical interaction that is of complete and total service to the well-written songs. Anyone who longs for the late sixties and early seventies records of Stax and Hi Records should definitely give this excellent record a spin.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sad Solution’, ‘Ready To Rise’, ‘Sedative’

Album of the Week 46-2017: Jamiroquai – The Return Of The Space Cowboy


While primarily known for their disco funk hits, Jamiroquai is actually one of the more versatile bands of the pop music landscape of the last few decades. No album proves this better than their sophomore record ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’. Sure, there is always a jazzy funk fundament, but what they choose to put on top of that varies wildly, resulting in their most accomplished and adventurous album thus far. Despite its experimental nature, the album is surprisingly consistent. Every song has a solid groove and an irresistible swing. Most of them have very strong choruses as well.

In addition, the album has a very pleasant live feel. Jamiroquai would experiment with electronic rhythms to varying degrees of success, but ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’ is full of lengthy jams, which transforms even the simplest vamp into a dance classic. This is easily what the band is best at and with all the musicians having different musical backgrounds, a myriad of influences is brought to the fore; not just funk and jazz, but also pop, hints of rock and the odd Carribean touch. As a result of that, every song on ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’ sounds different and has an identity of its own.

Though the album starts of on a high note with the remarkably complex, seventies Miles Davis-ish nine minute vamp of ‘Just Another Story’, the best material can all be found around the middle of the album. With its propulsive beat, ‘The Kids’ is likely the most aggressive song Jamiroquai ever recorded, ‘Mr. Moon’ is a delicious slab of late seventies funk and the soulful, socially counscious ‘Manifest Destiny’ is the brightest hidden jam in the band’s discography. ‘Scam’, while mainly super funky, has a bit of a psychedelic soul vibe, a genre that really isn’t practiced as much as it should be.

Of course, the album is not without its weird moments. The didgeridoo-lead instrumental ‘Journey To Arnhem’ couldn’t really be on any other artist’s album, but as a whole, ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’ is an album full of smooth, streamlined grooves. Smooth does not necessarily mean soft though. Sure, there are soft moments, such as the quiet storm-like ‘Morning Glory’ and the latin jazz-inspired ‘Stillness In Time’, but sometimes it’s just a matter of polishing up the raw potential of the band, such as the delightful closer ‘Space Cowboy’.

Anyone looking for proof that Jamiroquai is more than just the native American headgear and Stevie Wonder-inspired voice of frontman Jay Kay should look no further than ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’. The record is full of excellent interaction between the other band members, with especially bassist Stuart Zender and (at the time) new drummer Derrick McKenzie shining brightly. Jamiroquai would carry on to make singles that were even better than the songs here (‘Deeper Underground’, ‘Runaway’, ‘Cosmic Girl’), but they have yet to make an album full of performances as inspired as on this one. ‘Rock Dust Light Star’ came close, but ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’ still stands as a unique entry in Jamiroquai’s discography.

Recommended tracks: ‘Manifest Destiny’, ‘The Kids’, ‘Just Another Story’

Album of the Week 38-2017: Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”


Some people are so talented that it is borderline ridiculous. Donald Glover is one of those people. He first came to my attention as an actor in my favorite tv series ‘Community’, but is an outstanding comedian and writer himself and (as Childish Gambino) an interesting rapper and – as “Awaken, My Love!” proves – even a fine singer. With his trusted musical partner Ludwig Göransson – who also worked on ‘Community’ as the series’ main composer – he put together a surprising record full of psychedelic soul with hints of neo-soul and modern R&B. The hiphop influence is minimal, but that does not make the album any less impressive.

The closest reference for the sound on “Awaken, My Love!” is obviously Funkadelic. There are fuzzy guitars, spacey vibes and a production that sounds quite similar to that band’s mid-seventies heyday all over the record, but the record is more than a George Clinton tribute – despite prominently featuring a sample from ‘Good To Your Earhole’ in the frenzied masterpiece ‘Riot’. For starters, “Awaken, My Love!” is considerably more consistent than any Funkadelic record both in style and quality. In addition, there are some songs that can be considered a departure from the futuristic retro funk – I don’t know if that’s a thing – that defines the album.

First single ‘Redbone’ may be the most distinct example. With Glover’s falsetto – which I swore was pitchshifted until I saw a live performance of the song – over a smooth, sexy soul groove, memories of Prince are never far away. ‘California’ sounds incredibly sunny – maybe a little too sunny for a record with such a dark vibe – and the low-key ‘Terrified’ and the gorgeous closer ‘Stand Tall’ really bring to mind some of the Soulquarians productions of the late nineties, while the clavinet in ‘Baby Boy’ reminds me of a few of Allen Toussaint’s productions from the early seventies.

When “Awaken, My Love!” is in full psychedelic soul mode, however, the album is at its best, especially with the amount of variation on display here. Sometimes it’s a monstrous groove (‘Boogieman’), sometimes it’s the slow build up (the gorgeous ‘The Night Me And Your Mama Met’, which features Gary Clark Jr. on guitar) followed by a sudden burst of energy (opening track ‘Me And Your Mama’), but there is always something that gives the songs an idenity of their own. Glover’s vocal prowess is impressive too. Sometimes I think his acting background may contribute to his dramatic readings, most clearly on the awesome ‘Zombies’.

Although Glover – or Childish Gambino – was primarily known as a rapper in the world of contemporary music, “Awaken, My Love!” truly shows how much the guy has to offer. The album is a work of art that took me completely by surprise and sounds like a pretty spontaneous effort by Glover and Göransson to capture a certain vibe rather than desperately trying to fulfill certain expectations. This is truly progressive and forward-thinking music, despite the strong retro vibe on the record. And the sense of dynamics heard here is simply incredible. Highly recommended to fans of all genres and artists mentioned in this review.

Recommended Tracks: ‘Riot’, ‘Zombies’, ‘Boogieman’

Album of the Week 29-2017: The Meters – Rejuvenation


Within the funk idiom, The Meters are the prime representatives of the New Orleans sound. Not as angrily defiant as James Brown, not as dirty as the Ohio Players and not as crazy as Parliament-Funkadelic, the band focused on swinging, relatively relaxed grooves, which landed them a job as the backing band of New Orleans greats like Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. Their own material is worth hearing as well though. ‘Rejuvenation’ is their first album without any instrumentals, which were part of their charm, but the record is so full of inspired grooves and memorable melodies that it hardly matters.

On their first three albums, The Meters specialized in laid-back funk grooves, often making their songs sound like they belong on the soundtracks of one of the Blaxploitation films that were so popular at the time. The shift to predominantly vocal tracks on this album’s predecessor ‘Cabbage Alley’ may have raised some eyebrows at the time, but it is a fact that ‘Rejuvenation’ is full of excellent songs, some of which – most prominently the typical New Orleans rhythm of ‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ – sound like they could have been on one of their earliest records, except that these songs feature singing.

At other times, ‘Rejuvenation’ features the band leaning heavily towards more contemporary funk. Opening track ‘People Say’ has a suprisingly propulsive, stomping beat that nods strongly towards the harder funk that was gaining popularity at the time, while ‘Just Kissed My Baby’ is as close as The Meters ever came to the slinky, sexy grooves of the Ohio Players. ‘Jungle Man’ and the excellent closing track ‘Africa’ are great examples of the band adapting the sparse, prominent grooves of Sly & The Family Stone to their New Orleans background and bridging the gap between several types of funk in the process.

The album’s centerpiece, however, is the massive, 12 minute track ‘It Ain’t No Use’. This masterpiece of a song starts out like a blues track with some excellent stinging guitar fills by Leo Nocentelli, which are strongly reminiscent of Clapton during his best days in Cream. Art Neville’s passionate vocals are incredible as well. After the more song-oriented part is out of the way, a long, inspired funk jam starts, during which every member gets a chance to shine. Especially the rhythm section of drummer Ziggy Modeliste and bassist extraordinaire George Porter Jr. is beyond incredible here. Its jamtastic nature makes it stand out from the relatively concise material on ‘Rejuvenation’, but that’s not a problem.

‘Rejuvenation’ is the ultimate proof that The Meters could handle any kind of funk. As such, it is one of the most versatile and varied funk records released to date, as its styles range from the highly poppy ‘Loving You Is On My Mind’ all the way to the hard driving ‘Africa’. And The Meters tackle all of these styles with equal enthusiasm and inspiration. The album is definitely where the musicianship and the songcraft of The Meters is in perfect balance. Which is great, because as much as I love their contributions to the records of all these New Orleans legends, making their own music is really what The Meters do best.

Recommended tracks: ‘It Ain’t No Use’, ‘Africa’, ‘Jungle Man’

Album of the Week 27-2017: Jeangu Macrooy – High On You


Initially, it was Jeangu Macrooy’s voice that drew me towards his music. It strongly reminded me of Bill Withers in terms of timbre, power and intimacy. But a great voice only gets you so far. Luckily, Macrooy is an excellent songwriter as well. He mixes up many different genres, but instead of incoherent genre-hopping, Macrooy creates a smooth, listenable blend of soul, jazz, rock, pop and some Carribean influences. Last year, his ‘Brave Enough’ EP was an excellent introduction to what Macrooy was able to do, but his debut album ‘High On You’ really shows the full scope of his musical ambitions.

On ‘High On You’, it is possible to listen to three different songs and hear five different genres. However, things never get disjointed. It is quite clear that a lot of effort went into the arrangements, but it also helps that Macrooy has an excellent band behind him, consisting of musicians who are simply looking to upstage the songs rather than themselves, displaying an impressive amount of versatility. Macrooy himself does some nice work on the acoustic guitar as well. The fact that all the songs have a similar approach sonically positively influences the listenability of the album’s multi-genre approach.

Macrooy’s voice is on full display on the spiritual sounding opening track ‘Aisa’, but he also takes center stage in the folky ‘Circles’ and soulful ballads like ‘Antidote’, ‘Sleep You Off’ and the title track. But even the singer/songwriter himself has no problem taking a back seat to the generally relaxed, shimmering grooves of songs like ‘Tell Me Father’ and ‘Crazy Kids’. The vocals find a comfortable place within the mix, but Macrooy’s lyrics come across really well. On the EP, there were some interesting references to the history of his native country of Suriname, but he seems to have gone for words that are highly personal, openhearted and honest this time around.

While ‘High On You’ is consitently amazing, there are some standout moments. I personally think the seamless blend of light funk and dark, somewhat psychedelic rock that occurs in songs like ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’ and the somewhat more subdued ‘One Way Ticket’ is an extremely interesting approach that has not been attempted very often since the days of psychedelic soul in the early seventies. The rhythms of these songs are not exceptionally propulsive, but have a very pleasand drive to them. But the true highlight is ‘Step Into The Water’. The song sort of ties together all the influences on the album into a concise, amazing song with a highly memorable chorus. Truly this year’s best single out of the Netherlands.

Every once in a while, an exceptional talent appears who proves that contemporary music is not as stuck in a predictable pattern as much as I sometimes say it is. If it is done this way, I do not mind being proven wrong. Jeangu Macrooy and his band have made an excellent album that manages to be a pleasant listen and a musically challenging piece of art simultaneously. It has been a pretty good year for Dutch music already, but ‘High On You’ might just top everything else. This record deserves to be appreciated internationally.

Recommended tracks: ‘Step Into The Water’, ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’

Album of the Week 08-2017: Czesław Niemen – Niemen


Some singers are so good that you don’t have to understand the words they are singing in order to appreciate them. Case in point, Polish rock pioneer Czesław Niemen. With a voice that combines the power of a rock singer with the raw passion of blues and soul singers and a musical style that brings together elements of progressive rock, fusion, soul, folk and – later on – early electronic music, there’s no escaping the music even without understanding Polish. While its predecessor ‘Enigmatic’ is often considered the pinnacle of his work, ‘Niemen’ is the one where all elements are in perfect balance.

Alternately, the album is known as ‘Czerwony Album’ – the red album – for obvious reasons. It is also sold under the title ‘Człowiek Jam Niewdzięczny’, after its massive twenty minute opening track, which yours truly considers Niemen’s crowning achievement. The main sections are pushed forward by Janusz Zieliński’s simple, but brutally effective bass line and Niemen’s forceful, heartfelt vocals, while its middle section is lead by the fanastic improvisations of his backing band. Even Zieliński and drummer Czesław Mały-Bartkowski get extended solo spots, while guitarist Tomasz Jaśkiewicz and hammond organist Jacek Mikuła go nuts with strong, surprisingly passionate accompanied solos.

But while that monumental opening track is without any doubt the centerpiece of ‘Niemen’, there’s over fifty minutes of additional quality material on the album. The strong interaction between the musicians is more than apparent in the fantastic instrumental ‘Enigmatyczne Impresje’, which along the opening track is easily the most proggy moment on the record and again features amazing soloing by both Mikuła and Jaśkiewicz, while Niemen sounds like a man begging on his knees and surrendering everything he’s got in the highly soulful ‘Nie Jesteś Moja’, a surprisingly succesful European rock take on the Stax Records releases of the late sixties.

Other moments on ‘Niemen’ are significantly more accessible. ‘Wróć Jeszcze Dziś’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a seventies pop radio station if it would have had English lyrics and the same goes for ‘Zechcesz Mnie, Zechcesz’, the latter partially because of Jaśkiewicz’ notably cleaner guitar sound. ‘Italiam, Italiam’ is unsurprisingly the track that would later appear on many compilations and the main section of ‘Chwila Ciszy’ brings to mind Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. The flute-led sections of ‘Sprzedaj Mnie Wiatrowi’ and ‘Aerumnarum Plenus’ are reminiscent of the folky, pastoral sound of early British prog bands and the stomping ‘Muzyko Moja’ closes off the album on a high, albeit somewhat abrupt note.

Following ‘Niemen’, the singer and multi-instrumentalist that gave the record its name would continue to experiment with different styles, from the more fusion driven direction on ‘Niemen Aerolit’ to the increasingly electronic sounds that would characterize his output from the late seventies onward. Always with that incredible, incomparable voice. He kept on releasing strange, but deeply sincere music almost until his death in 2004, leaving behind a legacy that transcends boundaries, musically as well as culturally. Don’t let the Polish language keep you from hearing this remarkable musician, who also happens to be one of the best singers I have ever heard.

Recommended tracks: ‘Człowiek Jam Niewdzięczny’, ‘Enigmatyczne Impresje’, ‘Muzyko Moja’

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