Monthly Archives: October 2016

Sound ‘Round: Rough Guide to South African Jazz / Vieux Kanté

Protest jazz and desert blues from humanity’s oldest continent 

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to South African Jazz (World Music Network)

south-african-jazzIf music wasn’t a liberating force during apartheid’s heinous reign, it certainly was a salve for the millions of blacks evicted from their homes and placed in racially segregated townships. There, amid the squalor of poverty, the big-beat of marabi and the reserved cool of kwela meshed into a style of jazz unique to the region — succinct, formal, melodic and hopeful. While American jazz spent the ‘50s and ‘60s devolving into a heady mix of art-house ambiance and freaked-out proto funk, South African musicians of the era kept it clean and simple. This collection is an updated version of a 2000 release of the same name no longer in print. Version 2.0 heavily showcases contemporary artists who owe much to the legends of yesteryear. Bokani Dyer proves vuvuzelas are more than World Cup nuisances and the African Jazz Pioneers execute their duties as keepers of the flame. But it’s the older material that resonates strongest. Batsumi’s contribution from 1974 shimmers in contrast to the plight of his people and Dolly Rathebe’s righteous alto signifies an icon in her prime. The inclusion of pianist maestro Abdullah Ibrahim is mandatory, but notice how his selection was recorded in 1994 — the year Mandela became the nation’s first president. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Clarinet Kwela” / “Tihapi Ke Noga” /  “Emampondweni”

Viuex Kanté – The Young Man’s Harp (Sterns)

vieux-kante-the-young-mans-harpKanté passed away in 2005 at the age of 31 after succumbing to a sudden illness. He spent the bulk of his brief existence overcoming blindness to innovate the insular club scene of his native Mali. Looking to transcend the limited pentatonic scales of a standard kamele ngoni — a six-string African harp made of goat skin — Kanté doubled the number of strings and invented a new style of desert blues complete with greater range, a full-bodied timbre and an addiction to bending notes to better express his woes. This seven-track release encompasses the only commercial recordings made before his passing and captures a young man brimming with casual brilliance. The opening instrumental, aptly titled “Sans Commentaire,” runs a brisk 7:08 and is a summary of his modus operandi. What begins as an arid foray into arrhythmic mush turns into a forceful demonstration full of charm, surprises and a masterful command of the groove. From there, his quivering vocals split duties with the more gruff and forceful Kabadjan Diakite, whose spirited howls match the fervor of Kanté’s playing. But it’s the deceased auteur who wins the day all his own on “Nafolo,” which rides into infinity on a beat so ebullient it gives you hope in life beyond this dimension — if only for a moment. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Nafolo” / “Sans Commentaire” / “Kono”



Sound ‘Round: Joey Purp / Mick Jenkins

Further exploring hip-hop from the Windy City

Joey Purp – iiiDrops (self-released)

joey-purp-iiidropsJoey Davis wants better for his daughter, wants to make his mama proud and wants more than the cash flow society dictates people of color ought to crave. He also keeps good company, the primary factor in the success of this breakout mixtape. Producers Knox Fortune and Peter Cottonable are the real MVPs and appear on all but two tracks — cutting up obscure soul numbers for the thoughtful moments and piling on the bass for the bangers. If the production compliments Purp, the guest list one-ups him. Fellow Chi-Town homies Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and Mick Jenkins shine with humor and biting truths, but it’s the unavoidable influence of Kanye West that looms large. Joey gives shouts aplenty to Yeezy, and quotes some of his lamest jokes verbatim (sex with the lights on, huh?). But if he inherits anything from Mr. West, it’s a vision and sense of purpose. Save the ultra-catchy “Girls @,” Purp forsakes fame-and-fortune cliches to question the fate of his people. He bemoans kids on crack, recalls the time he found big brother’s gun in his toy closet, and examines self-worth while protesting black-on-black crime. Though Purp’s voice is still growing, his point of view is as concrete as his convictions. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Girls @” / “Corner Store” / “Morning Sex”

Mick Jenkins – The Healing Component (Cinematic)

mick-jenkins-the-healing-componentJenkins is a contemplative guy. Born in Alabama and raised in Chicago’s notorious south side, his career to this point is defined by a preoccupation with love —humanity’s trickiest virtue and Jenkins’ prescribed medicine for these terrible times. Don’t roll your eyes at such icky subject matter. It’s anything but fluff. Instead listen to him preach about the plight of Black America in a gruff baritone while morphing the dying words of Eric Garner into a chorus befitting the country’s socio-political movements. Be impressed by songs that run the gamut from gospel standards to heady R&B numbers that ponder self-respect and magnanimity toward enemies. Search hard for the chest-thumping tropes he eschews for metaphors wherein water acts as God’s spiritual salvation and the only means of physical survival. He’s got a lot to say, sometimes too much. His heart, mind and grooves are aligned but are diluted and diminished by longwinded spoken-word interludes that play better as TED Talks than inspirational drama. “Hey man, what’s love?” is a good question, but one with too many answers for Jenkins to suss. The reward is in the journey rather than the destination. As long as he keeps the music coming, it’s a path I’m resigned to stay on.  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Drowning” / “The Healing Component” / “Strange Love”

Sound ‘Round: Lori McKenna / Robbie Fulks

Simple stories, acoustic guitars, universal truths 

Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle (CN/Thirty Tigers)

lori-mckenna-the-bird-and-the-rifleA minor artist with major songwriting chops, McKenna began her career two decades ago when she was a mother of three. She hit it big in 2015 as a mother of five by penning the Grammy-nominated “Girl Crush” for Little Big Town and followed that with this year’s “Humble and Kind,” which she gifted to Tim McGraw. This is her ninth release and, like the rest of ‘em, it has largely gone unnoticed. Producer Dave Cobb is tasked with expanding her market share as he did with the ever-banal Chris Stapleton. That’s the modus operandi here, a series of well-produced, slow-footed tunes that emphasize lyricism over a good time. But slow suits her diminutive drawl and puts the stories front and center. This being Americana, tales about small towns and damaged romance are tropes despite their solid execution. What sticks are songs dripping with motherly love. “Halfway Home” features as chorus-as-advice column addressed to single women like her daughter: “Deep down you know that you’re worth more than this / Or the cost of that dinner last night.” That lesson precedes her own rendition of “Humble and Kind,” which instructs kids everywhere to go to church and visit grandpa. Call me a mama’s boy, but I’ll take homespun music this smart by the spoonful. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Humble and Kind” / “Halfway Home” / “Wreck You”

Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories (Bloodshot)

robbie-fulks-upland-storiesFulks has spent 30 years zig-zagging through the country spectrum to similar results. Be it alterna-country, Americana or folk-rock, the outcome has ranged from outright boring to merely passable. He gets things right on album number 13, turning into the fireside folkie he was always meant to be. Only five of these dozen tales come with percussion, leaving Fulks’ plain, empathetic lyrics to carry the load. Nothing here is autobiographical as far as I can tell, and the closest he gets to history is the opening “Alabama at Night,” which dramatizes photographer James Agee and his quest to document Depression-era sharecroppers. Instead, he searches for truth and humanity in the plight of fictional strangers. “Baby Rocked Her Dolly” finds an old geezer reflecting on the memory of his siblings, and the jokes come on the one about Aunt Peg’s new boyfriend (“She liked his fiddlin’, no doubt”). But the greatest, most potent parable is “Needed,” a sledgehammer of a song in which a careless teenager becomes a thankful father for raising the daughter he wanted to abort. “I hope you know that you’re needed,” he says at the end. It’s enough to make this ardent pro-choice advocate hold back tears. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Needed” / “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man” / “Baby Rocked Her Dolly”

Sound ‘Round: Drive-By Truckers / M.I.A.

Call them politically correct because they’re right.

Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO)

drive-by-truckers-american-bandHistory will remember them as Dixieland’s greatest band, and rightly so. They boogie with the best of ‘em and possess the lyrical chops to paint the South with the romanticism and gothic humor it deserves. But as the Age of Obama teeters into the Rage of Trump (ugh), co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley tap into the zeitgeist and take their southern dread national. The opening gallop of “Ramon Casiano” occurs in Texas and tells the true story of a Mexican teenager murdered in 1931 by the future leader of the NRA. Three tracks and eight decades later, we get “Guns of Umpqua,” which recalls a 2015 campus shooting in Oregon that’s already lost in America’s bounty of mass killings. They could pen a southern rock opera on gun violence, but the best material here concerns race. Cooley teaches remedial Civil War history to skinheads and teabaggers alike on “Surrender Under Protest,” and Hood contemplates the meaning of Ferguson for 6:38 while stating the truism, “You don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding in the street.” Making sense of the world in these troubling times is a Sisyphean task, which is why the anti-depression anthem comes at the end. It’s difficult to remain optimistic. I salute them for trying so damn hard. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “What it Means” / “Ramon Casiano” / “Surrender Under Protest”

M.I.A. – AIM (Interscope/Polydor)

m-i-a-aimAs Donald Trump and white nationalists the world over peddle fear and xenophobia to the ever-paranoid fringes of the electorate, along comes Maya Arulpragasm to reclaim dignity and humanity for refugees everywhere. She knows the subject matter so well because she’s lived it, escaping to India and England with her family as a child to avoid the bloody civil war of her Sri Lankan homeland. It’s those lessons of poverty, violence, race and geopolitics that inform her beat-centric tunes that borrow heavily from Central and East Asia. Though album number five (and supposed swan song) does away with her signature polyrhythmic bombast, what’s here still packs a wallop and is as catchy as anything in the Top 40. But political discourse being her forte, she keeps the rhymes simple, blunt and powerful. Whether questioning New World mores, bemoaning exploited migrant workers or demonstrating her feminist bona fides, her iconoclasm remains as vital and potent as ever. My favorite line comes on the aptly-titled finale, “Survivor.” “Men are good / Men are bad / And the war is never over.” This may be a man’s world (for now), but here’s hoping her revolution is televised. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Borders” / “Freedun” / “Visa”