It’s that time of year again, when artists of pretty much every genre do everything possible to grab your attention with new recordings of holiday classics. From major stars like Kelly Clarkson to obscure indie bands—everybody wants a piece of the holiday action. Last year, my roundup contained quite a few compilations and original releases, but this time I will keep it short and point out two favorites that came across my desk during this joyous season.
First on the list is Grammy-nominated jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon, whose “Christmas” collection features familiar favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” but man, does she swing those tunes, freely improvising around the melodies with the help of the John Brown Big Band, who expertly add their own nuanced grooves. This is not your traditional singer-backed-by-a-big-band disc. In tracks like “Spiritual Medley,” the arrangements are quite subtle, while things get hot with Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” and even “Silent Night,” is subjected to a Gospel treatment. The album closes with a New Orleans take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” that immediately gets your feet tapping. Read the rest of this entry »
Julie Meckler’s voice is soft and pleasant, and it floats over her acoustic guitar with the familiar, idyllic buoyancy of a rowboat. Left in the wake of her playing are strains of precious and patient melodies, alternating throughout her debut long-player “Queenshead,” most affectedly on the a capella tune “The Cigarettes Song.” The spontaneous results of a throwaway moment—”we were smoking cigarettes in the snow in Chicago”—have a raw majesty missing from the rest of the album, which by way of contrast seems too carefully composed. The listener faces a dilemma: this could be any other release by any other up-and-coming singer/songwriter stuck in the cafe tropes that garner paying gigs. Fortunately, Meckler has an ear for detail that bats those banal qualities away. Field recordings of ambient noise—the traffic in Chicago, the sound of whirling wind—these attributes create a density and purpose that continually ground the carefree melodies, something especially impressive given the inclusion of a bonafide reggae tune in “Bitch.” Read the rest of this entry »
Per Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, some are too old to rock ‘n’ roll, but too young to die. At seventy-one, Paul McCartney seems to defy the odds by relentlessly touring and consistently releasing new music. On his aptly titled “New,” he briefly looks into the past but has his eyes firmly locked on the future by working with young producers like Giles Martin (son of George Martin) and Mark Ronson, who all collaborated to give McCartney a more contemporary sound.
The disc opens with “Save Us,” a track reminiscent of Queen guitarist Brian May’s solo work via its multi-tracked vocals and layered guitars. The title track (also the lead single) has a retro seventies feel thanks to its prominent use of synthesizers, its vocal structure, and its general mood. The song has an immediately captivating groove, especially the harmonies at the end of each verse. Read the rest of this entry »
The music of Joni Mitchell has been praised by critics throughout the years for its lyrical beauty and musicality, and lately her songs have re-emerged as jazz standards, most notably with Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters” (Verve, 2007), the first jazz album to be named “Album of the Year” by the Grammy Awards since “Getz/Gilberto” (Verve, 1965) four decades earlier.
West Coast vocalist Tierney Sutton, already on a run of theme-based albums, decided to do her own take on Mitchell’s music, and for this project she did not work with her longtime band. Instead, she worked with several musicians—most notably Peter Erskine, a drummer featured on many of Mitchell’s discs. Read the rest of this entry »
On their sixth musical foray, the duo formed by Garry Hughes and Andrew T. Mackay emerge with their trademark mix of electronica, orchestra and Indian sounds. During their career they have collaborated with luminaries like percussionist/composer Karsh Kale (who co-produced one of their earlier efforts) and sitarist Anoushka Shankar, all the while maintaining a tendency to focus on a dance-floor-friendly format.
This time around, they lean toward a more diverse direction by incorporating Asian-centric grooves. For instance, “Blue Mosaic” features wordless vocals and the koto, a traditional Japanese instrument, while “City of Amber” contains a fierce drum ‘n’ bass groove, much to the delight of DJs and remixers. Read the rest of this entry »
There’s no question that Chicago prides itself on being the Bethlehem of house music, but its definitive history is still being uncovered and put into order. The Sunset Records Inc. story’s unique arc has seemingly gone unrecognized until now. We can thank the local record label Still Music and its founder, Jerome Derradji, that we know its story at all. Since 2004, Still Music has dedicated itself to reviving rare American dance music gone lost by reclaiming its infancy in the form of remixes, remasters, biographies and documentaries. Last year, Still Music put out “122 BPM: The Birth Of House Music,” a two-disc compilation of Mitchbal Records and Chicago Connection Records artists along with extensive liner notes chronicling the labels from beginning to end. Read the rest of this entry »
Sun Ra Orchestra alum Francisco Mora Catlett is a highly talented drummer and composer, and his AfroHorn project is where he explores his creativity, painting a musical canvas that turns listeners into thinkers. Every track brings a surprise, and even after repeated listens sounds still pop up at you unexpectedly. The tunes on “Rare Metal” are permeated with Yoruba chants which not only frame the music but seem to be a source of inspiration for each composition. This should not be considered a simple contemporary jazz disc, as the music is too adventurous to be cleanly labeled. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve never readily accepted the music of Justin Vernon. Undeniably well-crafted as it is, irresistible and viscerally affective as his voice is, something’s missing. Or maybe there’s too much of something, perhaps too much of the saccharine. Or perhaps Vernon’s sincerity goes unchecked on his independent projects (Kanye West contextualized the singer’s talents masterfully on each of his last two longforms), and I’m just unable to sign off on what’s ultimately a glitch-painted form of plain old “Americana,” which occasionally performs infectious and fascinating dances between each of its instrumental layers. I could go on. I could probably compliment Vernon’s sonic engineering all day. He’s a textural master, he’s a king of the melodic gut-punch. He could probably make me cry for weeks and weeks if he took up residency with a guitar in my family room. Read the rest of this entry »
A line’s been drawn in the sands of rap. Kendrick Lamar’s Twitter-breaking verse on Big Sean’s “Control” called out anyone who might be called his peer or rival, and he called out the rest of the genre too, for that matter; the latest prince of hip-hop has shouted a call-to-arms to the buried lyricists and traditionalists of the world. The more rappers get drunk on the glitz of hit-seeking jams, the more they eschew the narrative, commentary-laden genesis of the genre and contribute to a flashy, opiate-of-the-masses nothing, to put more hands into the air, the worse. So suggests, anyway, the logos of “Control.”
Days after Lamar’s verse got everyone talking, Earl Sweatshirt’s proper debut LP leaked. And “Doris” places itself so firmly on the narrative, verbal side of things that it’ll inevitably act as a pole in the ongoing conversation. And a damn good one, at that. The album’s title speaks to its MC’s throwback stylings—“I love old names,” he says in a radio interview. “I have a lot of geriatric tendencies.” If wordsmithery at the level of this nineteen-year-old—son to South African poet and activist Bra Willie—is considered one of those tendencies, we should be glad that a camp of argument is forming to steel his sort of career (“I’m just glad the culture is getting back on some rap shit,” said Killer Mike, in an interview following the “Control” verse). Read the rest of this entry »
No Age’s latest is being listed as “An Object,” but the LP’s cover art says “AN OBJECT. AN OBJECT! AN OBJECT, AN OBJECT? ‘AN OBJECT’.” And what better way could there be than this, this title which looks like Gertrude Stein’s idea, for the band to announce its faith in the boutique-art vein of rock ‘n’ roll that’s long been the frontier of the genre?
The sounds that follow largely deliver in this spirit, too, as the tension throughout the collection is between the ghosts of seminal punk and its endless swaths—oceans—of multi-layered guitar paint. It would be easy to say “post-punk” when talking about No Age, but the suggestion of a track title like “Running From A-Go-Go” is that the duo has thought through this tension in an authorial, modern way—they’re closer to the honor of not being genre-trapped, and earning the honorific (or, depending on your outlook, stigmatized) label of “experimental.” Read the rest of this entry »