Monthly Archives: March 2017

Sound ‘Round: Chuck Berry / Little Richard

The King is dead, love live the Queen

Chuck Berry – The Definitive Collection (Geffen/Chess, 2006)

Regarding his musical accomplishments, Chuck Berry was your average humble Midwesterner. To quote the dearly departed’s 1987 autobiography: “My view remains that I do not deserve all the reward directed on my account for the accomplishments credited to the rock ‘n’ roll bank of music.” Let the record — this greatest hits package in particular — show how wrong his self-effacing ways were. Rock wasn’t born from Elvis’ hip-shaking appropriations, rather a 29-year-old black man from St. Louis who attended cosmetology school before the guitar saved him from a life of hair dressing. From 1955 to 1959 he cranked out nearly 30 iconic singles that punched a hole in the future, revolutionizing American popular music by meshing blues swagger with country’s humorous storytelling to lay the foundation for everything that followed. He taught Lennon and McCartney how to write, and Jimi Hendrix learned to chop down mountains by listening to “Johnny B. Goode.” Prince’s red corvette can’t keep up with Maybellene’s coupe de ville, and Berry’s cross-racial appeal in the era of segregation is why we don’t bat an eye when Beyoncé does the same. Eighteen of these songs still roll Beethoven off a cliff. Eleven are minor miracles in their own right. The other is “My Ding-A-Ling.” C’est la vie, for the brown eyed handsome man. GRADE: A+

Key Tracks: “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” / “Roll Over Beethoven” / “You Never Can Tell”

Little Richard – The Georgia Peach (Specialty, 1991)

Never forget the first great showman to promote the devil’s music en masse is the gay son of a deacon whose signature song was a blatant reference to homosexual sex. But a line as obvious as “Tutti Frutti / good booty” was never going to fly during the closeted era of Eisenhower, so history will remember the neutered but just as infectious rewrite, “Aw, rooty.” That was Richard Penniman’s first charting single, released in October 1955 by Specialty Records, the label for which he recorded his most vital work. This 25-track best-of is sequenced chronologically up to 1959’s “Whole Lotta Shakin” and never lets up during its taught 57-minute run time. What Richard lacked in songwriting chops (he’s no Chuck Berry) he countered with visceral feeling and raw, uncontainable power. His fire breathing howl of a voice turns each of these anthems into tent pole revivals, and an obsession with driving, forceful brevity lays the groundwork for the punk rock of the future. Richard’s patented formula has become standard issue and replicated by the likes of Robert Plant, Axl Rose, Nicki Minaj and Young Thug — hedonism and the ways of the flesh above all. “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!” remains utter nonsense, and that’s the point. Check your I.Q. at the door. Have some damn fun. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Long Tall Sally” / “Tutti Frutti” / “Lucille”

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Sound ‘Round: Tinariwen / Rough Guide to the Sahara

Imports from the Middle East, travel ban be damned

Tinariwen – Elwan (Anti-/Epitaph)

This is desert blues in the fashion you’ve come to expect. Arid production. Call-and-response canticles. Pentatonic scales. Riffs that rarely stray from the tonic. Three chords and a sad song in their heart. But it’s no boss man or past lover keeping this loose collection of Tuaregs down, rather Islamist extremists whose ruthless persecution forced them into exile from their North African home. This is their second album recorded on the run and was assembled in Joshua Tree — a rural patch of dust and sand where Bono found religion and Josh Homme resides as queen of the stoners. For Tinariwen, however, Southern California’s oppressive heat is as close to home on this continent as they can get. Though these songs were constructed half a world away from northern Mali, their war-torn roots are never too far away. Over sunburned guitars, they plead for peace and humanity to prevail over hatred and bloodshed. In hope of reconciling with their enemies, the music hums more than rocks. But what they sacrifice in power they make up with resolute politics and profound conviction. The title translates to “elephants,” a nomadic mammal that finds safety in numbers, too. But they may as well have called it “Exile on Main Street.” Here’s hoping they go home soon enough. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Imidiwan n-akall-in” / “Sastanaqqam” / “Talyat”

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara (World Music Network, 2014)

The Sahara desert stretches from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, roughly the same size as the United States. Though the climate is unrelenting as the landscape is rugged, earth’s largest desert is home to nearly three million people — from nomadic Tuaregs, dune-dwelling tribes and city slickers punished for poor civic planning. The aim of this 14-song compilation is to traverse as much geography as possible, highlighting the region’s unifying musical elements while celebrating its differences. Given the area’s recent trend of revolutions and coup d’etats, things rightly get political from the get-go. Nigerien bluesmen Etran Finawata plead for togetherness, an act that’s more than mere symbolism. For them, it’s life or death — their band members come from traditionally warring factions. Then it’s onto Saharawi stalwart Mariem Hassan, who bemoans oppressive regimes just a few years before bone cancer silenced her soaring contralto. Day-to-day struggles abound. But there’s also joy. Ali Hassan Kuban delivers plenty of it with an ebullient horn section and Emmanuel Jal’s smooth baritone is an oasis in a back half loaded with tribal minimalism. He also delivers the album’s only English-spoken verse on “Ya Salam.” “It means peace, and that’s actually what we need.” When he says “we,” he means us. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Legneiba” / “Mabruk” / “Ya Salam”

Click here to stream the album on Spotify. 

Sound ‘Round: Frank Ocean

Pop’s most unknowable figure keeps it that way

Frank Ocean – Endless (Def Jam, 2016)

His final effort for Def Jam is an arthouse troll job — a visual album released without charge to satisfy a contractual obligation. So forgive the music’s drab austerity and stoned-out aloofness. Ditto the “visual” component, a lo-fi snooze-fest in which Ocean literally constructs a spiral staircase to nowhere. If there’s a metaphor to be found, this critic is too stupid or too smart to find it. What I do grasp is a soundtrack that eschews formalism, embraces melancholy and winds through lyrical non sequiturs and musical enigmas. The only conventional song is the opening tribute to Aaliyah borrowed from the Isley Brothers. Ocean’s teary falsetto lends tenderness and ambiguity to verses concerning unrequited love, distancing him ever further from a curious populace. That distancing effect is the intended goal, hence 40 minutes of music that’s largely a-melodic and devoid of rhythm. These are sounds, not songs — which is why things get especially sparse in the middle. The sum doesn’t equal the whole, so find sustenance in the details. A bit of vocal trickery here, a nugget of drum machines there, a witty joke delivered in deadpan. There are few answers to be found and even fewer resolutions. But the journey, and Ocean’s maddening process, demands attention. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “(At Your Best) You Are Love” / “Slide on Me” / “Rushes”

Frank Ocean – Blond/Blonde (self-released, 2016)

To experience Frank Ocean’s scant discography is to witness the de-evolution of song structure. While he lit the indie-sphere on fire six years ago with a muted sense of charisma, slick beats and a masterful troll of Don Henley, he’s since upped the sad factor, ditched the hooks and traded melodies for moodiness. Ocean’s always been glum, but success has stunted his point of view and rendered him less captivating. Here, he struggles against fame (not wealth, mind you), a burden shared by an elite club who know damn well the Benjamins buy security if not happiness. Without much friction, rarely does this hour-long tour-de-blah achieve lift off. A recluse by nature, he’s also too talented and crafty to lay a turd. So, in what is a growing trend with him, turn your ears not to the whole, but the pieces. “Pink + White,” with chiming piano and the subtlest Beyoncé cameo we’ll ever get, shines brightest thanks in part to producer Pharrell Williams. Ocean’s mother has her say regarding drugs, Andre 3000 comes out of hiding and Facebook is the means through which vanity trumps virtue. Still, for an artist who has shown flashes of brilliance elsewhere, his latest is a largely a diary for the lifestyles of the bored and fabulous. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “Pink + White” / “Nights” / “Nikes”

Sound ‘Round: Deap Vally / Sleater-Kinney

Nasty women from the West Coast get noisy

Deap Vally – Femejism (Nevado, 2016)

deap-vally-femejismBikini Kill fanboy and feminist sympathizer Kurt Cobain found solace in knowing the future of rock belonged to women. So during the year in which the fallen grunge hero would have turned 50, let us celebrate the accuracy of his prediction in the form of this two-piece outfit from L.A. Julie Edwards crushes it on the kit while front woman Lindsey Troy handles the mic and guitars. It ain’t punk — the tempos are too methodical and deliberate. Picture instead a rock band in the classic sense: amps to 11, youthful bitterness as fuel with the aim of upsetting the established order. The riffs are dirty and drenched in enough fuzz to match their sassy mouths. Their ethos is simple and American as affordable birth control. “I’m gonna do what I wanna / I’m gonna do it cuz I wanna.” Talk about my kind of women. But there’s more to them than visceral angst. They’re keen enough to know riot-grrrls mature into riot-women and riot-grannies. So they vow to always cling to the rage that propels them and the humor that endears them. Rock is the vehicle, satire is the weapon. The best one liner: “I am not ashamed of my sex life / Though I wish it were better.” You said it, sister. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Smile More” / “Gonnawanna” / “Royal Jelly”

Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris (Sub-Pop)

A rule of thumb for the uninitiated: avoid live albums in most circumstances. Concerts are fleeting moments meant for those in the room. Rare does the stage successfully translate to tape. So tickle me pink by the power of this iconic band’s first live record taken from a gig at the historic La Cigale. Reunion tours replete with old hits are quick ways for a band to refill its coffers. But Sleater-Kinney is no nostalgia act. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss know there’s no time like the present, hence a track list that largely siphons a 20-year career into their most recent material — including five selections from 2015’s No Cities to Love and four from 2005’s The Woods. From the opening riffs of  the anti-consumerist anthem “Price Tag” to the closing bars of the “Modern Girl,” a deadpan take on false feminism, they prove time and again how vital their brand of post-punk remains. Tucker’s quivering voice plays up the paranoia of these terrible times while Brownstein’s resolute tenor reminds you to always keep the faith. Still not convinced? Dig the furor of “Surface Envy,” with a righteous chorus that doubles as an eternal protest chant for the world’s disaffected. “We win / We lose / Only together do we break the rules.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Surface Envy” / “Oh!” / “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”

Sound ‘Round: Cloud Nothings / Japandroids

Let’s hear it for the guitar nerds.

Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound (Carpark)

cloud-nothings-life-without-soundDylan Baldi was doomed to unhappiness from birth. The poor bastard was born in Cleveland, the quintessential place to indulge one’s youthful fatalism. With the existential ennui possessed by the greatest punks and a city-sized chip on his shoulder, Baldi channels teenage angst through a sea of noise and distortion. If the lyrics are obsessed with failure and self-loathing, the music tows the line between indie-rock exuberance and garage-band purism. This is his fourth album in nearly 10 years and makes him a savvy veteran at age 25. But something important happened in the three years between records. Chalk it up to maturity or a steady paying gig, but Baldi’s dour disposition has turned sunny side up, making this his most upbeat, melodic and enjoyable batch of tunes yet. With a voice that recalls a post-pubescent Tom DeLonge and a howl to make Cobain proud, he realizes treading water ain’t the worst fate. Rare is the young punk who’s equally thoughtful and declarative (“I want a life / That’s all I need lately.”) and so remorseful of his selfish past (“Because of what I thought / It’s people who should hurt.”). Not all of the kids are alright, but Baldi and company have turned a corner. Here’s to finding out better selves. GRADE: A- 

Key Tracks: “Modern Act” / “Things Are Right With You” / “Up to the Surface”

Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life (ANTI-/Epitaph)

japandroids-near-to-the-wild-heart-of-lifeIt’s been five years since this Vancouver duo released Celebration Rock — a joyous album that turned the anxieties of turning 30 into a festive remembrance of being 20 (“We’re drinking / And we’re still smoking!”). So why didn’t I miss them during their sojourn as much as I would have thought? Because nostalgia doesn’t impress me as much as it does bandleader Brian King, and reminiscing only means so much for the rest of us too busy living. So credit them for having the audacity to alter the formula and the guts to halt the little forward momentum they had left. Where treble-heavy guitars once boosted their garage-band criteria, here they soften the rough edges and clean up their sound with old fashion production thanks to a bigger budget. What King sacrifices in immediacy he makes up with diversification, injecting acoustic guitars where he sees fit and experimenting with synths as expansive as the Canadian tundra. Not everything clicks. The seven minute epic “Arc of Bar” aims for “Won’t Get Fooled Again” but instead recalls “Dead or Alive.” But notice how the smaller moments shine through the bombast, especially how well King articulates his weariness of the very road on which he earns a living. Makes you ponder how much they dig their day job. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Near to the Wild Heart of Life” / “Midnight to Morning” / “North South East West”