Monthly Archives: August 2015

Sound ‘Round: Cracker / Public Enemy

For those in favor of class warfare

Cracker – Berkeley to Bakersfield (429, 2014)

Cracker - Berkely To BakersfieldDavid Lowery is a red-state union man who has made a career of existing on the fringes. For two decades he earned what he could on snark-filled albums which never resonated with a mass audience. Though this double-disc comeback won’t make him a millionaire, it damn well should. Blame it on age or his day job as an economics professor at the University of Georgia, but his lyrical barbs have at long last found the subject matter they deserve regarding income inequality. The “Berkeley” disc buzzes with a fervor befitting of the college town it’s named after. Channeling middle class rage, Lowery threatens billionaire corporate hustlers with pitchforks and torches before mocking the woes of the superrich. The second disc suffers blue collar America and the impoverished. Lap steel guides a desperate man in search of work across the border, while banjo helps a homeless junkie forget a brother that’s M.I.A. in Afghanistan. Lowery nails the protest songs, but don’t overlook the love anthems where life’s smaller moments provide unbounded happiness: record shopping, coffee drinking, Sunday matinees and punk rock shows. Taken altogether, the message is clear: Enjoy the simple things. It’s all we’ve got left. GRADE: A-

Key Track: Waited My Whole Life” / “March of the Billionaires” / “California Country Boy

Public Enemy – Man Plans God Laughs (Spitdigital)

Public Enemy - Man Plans God Laughs“Am I radical?” It’s a question Chuck D turns into a refrain on the title track of his thirteenth album. Answer too quickly and there’s a good chance you’re part of the problem. He’s only vilified as a revolutionary by those who wish to perpetuate the intrinsic racism of American society — as if demanding police accountability makes him a domestic terrorist. Damn right he’s still mad. He’s been fighting the same fights his entire life. Though this album is the shortest in his cannon, don’t mistake his brevity for lack of passion. These protest anthems aren’t lectures, they’re picket signs. Almost every bar is delivered in succinct fashion and could double as a rallying cry at marches in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston or outside Trump Tower: “Save my hood / But what good is my hood / When God says it’s no good?” “If we don’t matter / No lives matter.” The music is as heavy-handed as it needs to be, but Chuck manages to have a laugh at the midway point. Sampling The Rolling Stones, he turns “Honky Tonk Woman” into a take on white privilege. It’s aptly titled, “Honkey Talk Rules.” GRADE: A-

Key Track: Man Plans God Laughs” / “Those Who Know Know Who” / “No Sympathy From the Devil

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Sound ‘Round: Sly & The Family Stone / James Brown

 Stretching their legs before a live audience.

Sly & The Family Stone – Live at the Filmore East October 4th and 5th, 1968 (Epic / Legacy)

Sly and the Family Stone - Live at the Filmore EastRecorded less than six months after Martin Luther King’s assassination, these tapes were intended for a release that didn’t occur until the swansong of Obama. The band’s two-day stint at the Filmore came one month prior to “Everyday People,” a celebratory jingle concerning racial and sexual harmony that went No. 1 and kick-started a three-year commercial peak. Each show is presented in its entirety, and finds them sounding like the rocket-powered live band history always said they were. Many of the tracks come from their uneven early discography, a period where Sly wrestled meshing proto-funk’s long form tendencies with pop’s desire for instant gratification. Uninhibited from the confines of radio, they relish the opportunity to jam and bend arrangements. Where “Chicken” is a taught 2:41 on record, here each of its four iterations runs more than triple that time. What begins as a greasy trip through southern soul turns into a chorale of “Old McDonald” and “Pomp and Circumstance.” When they’re not showing off, they keep it real. The political ennui of “Color Me True” mirrors both the past and current events, and “Are You Ready” begins with an altruism that could only come from the best multi-racial band America ever knew: “Don’t hate the black / Don’t hate the white / If you get bitten just hate the bite.” Intended as a definitive live album, there’s too much material to have the kind of impact a more concise package would provide. Still, as trumpeter Cynthia Robinson says: “Get up and dance to the fuckin’ music.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:  “Are You Ready” / “Color Me True” / “M’Lady”

James Brown – Love Power Peace (Sundazed / Polydor)

James Brown - Love Power PeaceRecorded in March 1971 at the Olympia in Paris, this performance captures the twilight of the classic J.B.’s lineup before it was obliterated by the formation of Parliment-Funkadelic. When bassist Bootsy Collins and elder bro Catfish joined George Clinton soon after, this live album was shelved until a truncated CD version was released in 1992. This review is for the 2014 remaster which features the full-length concert, including mini-sets from Bobby Byrd and Soul Sister No. 1 Vicki Anderson. On a set brimming with a museum’s worth of funk icons, Brown’s mystique and command of the all-powerful beat renders everyone spare parts. Though Bootsy’s staccato bass notes boogie with succinct glee, an evening’s worth of riffs are helpless against a single grunt from the Godfather. Brown began his career as a balladeer and does well by his early material here — including an obligatory “Try Me” and a soaring rendition of “Georgia on My Mind.” The fireworks come on the unrestrained jams. The strut of “Sex Machine” matches the song’s preposterous title while “Soul Power” touches the face of God. So masterful is Brown, when he orders his band to “take ‘em all the way to the funky road,” he could spend the rest of the night singing about his favorite chili recipe. Luckily he doesn’t. Instead we get more of the same — unfiltered funk from the best to ever do the shit. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Soul Power” / “Sex Machine” / “Ain’t It Funky”

Sound ‘Round: The Mountain Goats / Sufjan Stevens

Heroes, villains and everyday people. 

The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ (Merge)

Mountain Goats - Beat the ChampJohn Darnielle is a songwriter above all. Ever absorbed with words and willing to let the music play a supporting role, his grasp for melody leans knotty, rugged and difficult to like right away. I resigned this concept album regarding his childhood wrestling heroes to an honorable mention — a sincere attempt at debunking the icky romanticism of nostalgia — before another listen revealed more. Wrestling, like the music industry, is built on self-perpetuating legends. It’s opera, theater for the common man. No surprise the best tracks draw such comparisons. The biographical hymn of Chavo Guerrero doubles as a story wherein a young Darnielle finds reprieve from an abusive stepfather. “Southwest Territory” bemoans a life on the road so well because he does that shit for a living. Cries of “I don’t wanna die in here,” could be uttered by Red Shoes Dugan in a cage match or the auteur and his history with drug addiction. Not all is poetry and symbolism. “Foreign Object” is about stabbing someone in the eye with one, but a buoyant brass section renders the whole thing tongue in cheek. Talk about a great gimmick. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” / “Foreign Object” / “Heel Turn 2

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & LowellThe death of his absent and mentally ill mother in 2012 devastated him to the point of putting his avant-hipster pop parade on hold. This song cycle of beautiful and sparse ballads recalls prior works centered on forest-side acoustics but with a focused sense of melody rarely found in his scattershot discography. Stevens’ straight-on vocal inflections clarify his grief even as the lyrics remain frustratingly vague at time. Diehards will delight in another chance to decipher Biblical passages, references to ancient mythology and verses concerning his supposed homosexuality, but such Easter eggs diminish what would otherwise be a solid attempt at introspection. Instead of namechecking Poseidon whilst wallowing, he should remember heartache and despair is experienced by nonbelievers, too. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Should Have Known Better” / “Fourth of July” / “Death With Dignity

Sound ‘Round: Jamie xx / Major Lazer

Everybody will be dancing and be doing it right.

Jamie xx – In Colour (XL / Young Turks)

Jamie xx - In ColourWhere his first solo outing spruced up the dying words of Gil Scott-Heron, this follow-up is liberated from such heavy-handedness and relishes the multifaceted joys of electronica. The idea here is akin to the album’s color-wheel art scheme: a kaleidoscope of  subgenres meshed into cohesion by the auteur’s grasp for pop. Taking a break from the austerity of his day job as one-third of The xx, he hopscotches from the warm syncopation of reggae, through the chillness of dub and into the hooks of EDM and hip-hop. Clocking in at 42:44, segments of his synth fantasies sag under the weight of their own rigid formalities — does there always have to be a ballad devoid of rhythm on these kinds of albums? He’s best when indulging his utilitarian side, like the great Young Thug cameo or the gospel-tinged mini-rave of “Loud Places.” So adept is he at functional elctro-pop, it’s a wonder he bothers obeying the laws of minimalism in the first place. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: I Know There’s Going to be Good Times” / “Loud Places”/ “Obvs

Major Lazer – Peace is the Mission (Mad Descent)

Major Lazer - Peace is the MissionForgo the procedural slow jam poorly pegged as the opener and cut straight to the goods. From there, it’s on to eight Caribbean-scented jams aimed at maximizing club-level efficiency. With none of these songs eclipsing the four-minute mark, Diplo and company wear bombast well. They stick the landing on the subdued ones too, like the charming briskness of “Lean On,” a global chart topper. The appearance of Jamaican artists is appreciated, but it’s a shame similar guest spots are handed to dullards like Elle Goulding and Ariana Grande, who dilute the fun with their stilted and uninspiring voices. Recognized names sell more albums, sure. But the fact more island-grown talents aren’t present is another reason to protest capitalism. GRADE: A-

Key Tacks: Lean On” / “Light It Up” / “Too Original