Monthly Archives: February 2015

Sound ‘Round: Charli XCX / Jazmine Sullivan

Steps in the right direction. 

Charli XCX – SUCKER (Atlantic. 2014)

Charli XCX - SuckerSpare me the lecture on her sudden maturity – she’s only 22 and her snarkiest lyrical barb is “Fuck you, sucker.” But it’s that same brand of brash simplicity which makes this record so endearing. Where she was too concerned with brooding and dark-wave aura on her 2013 major label debut, an album I admittedly overrated, here she decides to imitate Joey Ramone instead of Robert Smith. Each track comes with a riff, a hook and a chorus so delightful in its brevity you’d swear she was a seasoned pro at this shit. With music big enough to fill arenas, she keeps it quaint by playing the starlet next door. Though she dreams of perpetual fame and a bottomless bank account (“Gold Coins”), she’s not above ditching school (“Break the Rules”) and raging with friends (“Die Tonight”). Another improvement aside from her persona is the love songs. Once gloomy and full of bad poetry, here they are sensitive and thoughtful without losing an ounce of power. May she stay forever young.   GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Breaking Up” / “Boom Clap” / “Break the Rules

Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show (RCA)

Jazmine Sullivan - Reality ShowThe first notable R&B album of 2015 would be easier to enjoy if she kept her story straight. One of my favorite tracks is “Stupid Girl,” a minor key doo-wop that serves as a cautionary tale for ladies tempted by double-crossing men. Fair enough, but the message is undercut considering the song follows “#HoodLove,” in which she vows to go to jail for her no-good boy toy because “that’s what a real bitch do.” I’m game for jammers centered on bad romance, but the Bonnie and Clyde shtick is forced and silly. That’s not to say she can’t be sassy and believable. She out-hustles the competition on “Mascara,” a slow burner which flaunts her natural physique and tiresome work ethic while critiquing societal eminence. A Philly native on the up-and-come since she was 15, she wishes for the break she damn well deserves on “Silver Lining,” where she’d rather win the lottery than score a Top 10 hit. Here’s hoping she scores a winner one way or another. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Silver Lining” / “Stupid Girl” / “Mascara

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Sound Round: The Rough Guide to Latin Rare Groove / Africa Express

Grooves from Latin America and Northwest Africa

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Rare Latin Groove (Volume 1) (World Music Network, 2014)

The Rough Guide to Rare Latin Grove, Volume 1Like any other Rough Guide release, this sampler fits too many morsels onto one plate. Even as most of these fiesta-starters clock in at a brisk 3:30, the 19-song tracklist diminishes the music’s overall potency and weakens what would otherwise be a parade of taut rhythmic brilliance. My preferred playlist would ixnay the corny Spanish Fly number, the two-part Temptations tribute and the flaccid strut of Los Charly’s Orchestra. That widdles things down to 15 tracks, each as slick, tuneful and propulsive as the next. As the majority of these songs are in Spanish, I can only parse their meaning through rough translations of vague titles: “This Woman,” and “Everyone” are examples. Regardless, the lyrics are secondary. I don’t need Rosetta Stone to recognize a good melody – of which there are many – and I don’t need to understand verb conjugation to feel each of the jubilant percussions in the pit of my belly. Each worthy nugget is heavy on the groove, and heavier of feeling. ¡Bailamos! GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Esa Mujer” / “Todo El Mundo” / “Pensamiento”

Africa Express – Presents… Terry Riley’s in C Mali (Trangressive, 2014)

Africa Express - In C MaliHere is a style of art house minimalism I can grasp and put on repeat: beat savvy, fluid, unpretentious and hooky in a roundabout way. Terry Riley’s original In C was composed in 1964 with a simplistic construction despite its avant premise: Roughly 35 musicians perform 53 numbered sequences which range in duration from half a beat to 32 beats. Some renditions last a mere 20 minutes while others slog on for 90. This take, recorded by African musicians and produced in part by Blur’s David Albarn, runs 40:45 and never lags. The first movement is comprised of jittery percussive flourishes – a series of counter-rhythms and syncopations stack on top of each other to create a patchwork of grooves that are topped off synth fills and droning flutes. The second movement is as arid as the Sahara. Lutes, electronic samples and sporadic guitar riffs take over the grooves in time for the spoken-word intermission. The final movement meshes beasts and strings alike, as an ngoni (a wooden instrument that is the African equivalent to the banjo) furiously tries to outpace cascading drums in a duel to the finish line. Though no segment peaks, the music largely remains consistent, rarely bores and no section overstays its welcome. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Africa Express Presents… Terry Riley’s In C Mali”

Sound Round: D’Angelo and the Vanguard / Sleater-Kinney

As if they never left

D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah (RCA, 2014)

d'angelo and the vanguard - black messiahR&B Jesus resurrects his career on this oft-delayed comeback suddenly bestowed upon the world immediately following the fallout in Ferguson, Missouri. An album once shrouded in perpetual myth and prophecy is now fully formed, crafted in the image of its maker. The liner notes, penned by the auteur himself, imply a strictly political affair regarding black pride, racial harmony and global peace. “All we wanted was a chance to talk / But we’ve only got outlined in chalk,” he laments on America’s never-ending disregard for people of color. But D’Angelo is too in love with pussy to proselytize at length. When he’s not sampling Fred Hampton or Khalid Abdul Muhammad of the Black Panthers, he’s pleading, moaning, groaning, sweating and crying for sexual pleasure. The bedroom jams are lither than his socially conscious hymns, but they’re also less surprising in musical texture. That’s not to say you’ll be able to discern even half of the lyrics, as he buries his shape-shifting voice under a bevy of polyrhythmic percussions, Latin guitar and new-soul-as-old-soul ambiance. Obscuring the verses isn’t meant to hamper the messages, but rather mesh and thereby enhance them into one defining mantra: Love is peace, love is war, love is salvation. Amen.  GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Really Love” / “The Charade” / “Sugah Daddy

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to LoveIn which America’s favorite femme punks return unannounced from a 10-year sabbatical, they once again exhibit their fighting mentality, albeit with their weapons aimed at different targets. They’ll forever be hailed as the originators of post-modern feminist rock, but this comeback is more personal than political. Aside from the opening number which protests the exploitation of the middle class, the remaining nine songs find the ageless Corin Tucker dwelling on more existential matters: the meaning of fame in the digital age and the waning influence of rock bands such as her own. Different battles, yes, but all fought with familiar ammunition. Tucker’s big-throated yelp of a voice shows no evidence of decay, and the guitar riffs remain defiantly melodic despite their knotty construction. Some tastemakers have expressed disappointment in the lack of a go-to girl-power anthem, but such a critique is lazy and pigeon holes a band that has always reflected a state of being as opposed to an explicit agenda. Those looking for profundity might miss one hell of a rallying chant on “Surface Envy,” an ode to their devout fan base: “We win, we lose / Only together do we break the rules.” So concise, simple and potent, they sum up in two lines what Run the Jewels has failed to say in two albums. GRADE: A

Key Tracks:Surface Envy” / “No Anthems” / “Fangless

Sound ‘Round: Buddy Holly / The Everly Brothers

Celebrating a genius gone too soon along with some of his friends

Buddy Holly – Gold (Geffen/Decca, 2005)

buddy holly - goldHolly was no nerd – he got laid too often. This four-eyed native of Lubbock, Texas was, however, a visionary. Meshing Tex-Mex flourishes with the twang of Hank Williams, Holly topped the whole thing off with a cocksure bravado befitting the first rock n’ roll generation. He was such an adept songwriter and visceral guitarist, only Little Richard and Jerry Lee surpass him in showmanship among his contemporaries. But where Holly supersedes those ivory-hammering howlers is his unbeatable vocal dexterity. He could be gruff and macho, or tender and vulnerable during the course of a two-minute ditty, shifting tones on the turn of a single hiccup. Posterity made him an icon – horn-rimmed glasses and all. But during his lifetime, Holly’s success came with tremendous struggle.  His producer-as-manager swindled him of his riches, record excess were clueless to his genius and delayed the release of his most brilliant work. An interracial and interreligious marriage caused tension in his reactionary hometown, and infighting with bandmates induced bouts of isolation during grueling bus tours across the country. All these experiences caused him to be wise beyond his years, and made his self-penned anthems of missed chances and stalled dreams all the more endearing. From the arrogant strut of “That’ll be the Day,” to the teary-eyed pleading of “True Love Way,” the man’s music was a reflection of himself, and displayed revolutionary talent taken before it could peak. May he forever rave on. GRADE: A+

Key Tracks: “Rave On” / “That’ll Be the Day” / “True Love Ways”

The Everly Brothers  – Cadence Classics: Their 20 Greatest Hits (Rhino, 1990)

The Everly Brothers - Cadence ClassicsFrom the horde of cash-grabbing Everly hits packages comes this defining retrospective concerned with the duo’s golden period at Cadence Records. Comprised of 20 songs and sequenced chronologically from May, 1957 to June, 1960, all are just about as well manicured as their James Dean haircuts. Regardless of subject matter or tempo, these coal miner’s sons are in-and-out in 2:30 or less, giving their ballads as much impact as the rockers. Lyricism wasn’t their thing – only one track features the pair as co-songwriters. Their elite vocal capacity, however, adds urgency to verses about missed curfews and charming fragileness on those about teenage romance. The shakers are found in the first half before giving way to the tearjerkers at the end. Such an artistic move may show “maturity” in today’s market. But in the age of Eisenhower and conformity, the sudden change in tone is a reflection of rock’s fledgling struggle for legitimacy and of societal pressure to snuff it out. They didn’t suddenly evolve, they survived.  GRADE: A+

Key Tracks: “Bye Bye Love” / “All I Have to Do is Dream” / “Wake Up Little Susie”