Staff Picks: Music
If you lived in Kalamazoo during the 1970s and listened to WIDR (WMU campus radio) you undoubtedly heard a lot of Gil Scott-Heron – like others I’m sure, that was my first exposure to this highly influential musician and poet. Scott-Heron is often described as “the godfather of rap” for his sharply pointed spoken word infused jazz and soul. In his 1970 single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his deep soulful voice—accompanied only by a steady drum beat—brought life the hot-button issue of racial inequality; not as a radical street preacher but as an articulate street-smart professor (he held a master’s degree in creative writing). His words were riveting and immediate. “The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions. The revolution will not give you sex appeal. The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.”
He collaborated with many of the jazz heavyweights of his time – Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws to name a few and his influence is acknowledged by a generation of artists, from Kanye West and Public Enemy to Eminem. His work touched on a variety of social and political issues, including addiction (“The Bottle” - 1974), slavery (“Rivers of My Fathers” - 1973) and racial oppression (“Johannesburg” - 1976). In 1979, he joined other high profile artists in Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) and contributed “We Almost Lost Detroit,” a poignant reminder of a close-by nuclear near-disaster in 1972.
In 2010, Scott-Heron released his fifteenth studio album, I’m New Here, to great critical acclaim. A track called “Where Did The Night Go” is highlighted here. Gil Scott-Heron passed away last Friday in New York after a brief illness. He was 62.
Over the past couple of years there has been a spike in retro-sounding soul musicians whose work echoes the groundbreaking sounds of early sixties Motown and Stax recordings. For starters, the soul enthusiast looking to delve into some of the newer troubadours will want to grab a copy of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings’ I Learned the Hard Way, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Mayer Hawthorne’s A Strange Arrangement, Fitz and the Tantrum’s Pickin’ Up the Pieces, and the forthcoming Raphael Saadiq’sStone Rollin’.
I Learned the Hard Way
I cannot get the first track of Adele’s new album 21 out of my head. “Rolling in the Deep” is soulful and catchy, and one of those songs you want to sing along to while driving in the car. Adele is a British singer, who at age 22 has already made huge waves in the pop charts—it’s no wonder, her voice is amazing. The album as a whole is a little uneven; it starts out strong but loses energy in the middle due to a few slow, uninspired ballads right in a row. The end of the album picks up a bit with a unique take on the Cure’s “Lovesong.” All in all, it’s definitely worth a listen.
The music world lost some of its most talented and accomplished musicians this year. Here is a short list of several artists whose works can be found and enjoyed here at the library.
Alex Chilton (Big Star)
Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse)
Ari Up (The Slits)
Pete Quaife (The Kinks)
Doug Fieger (The Knack)
Keep an eye on the sky
I was not terribly impressed with the musical output from 2009, but after compiling my Top Ten CDs from 2010 I discovered a bunch more that were better than most of last year’s list.
Since I could only offer ten selections for the official KPL Top Ten page, I present ten more great CDs from the past twelve months.
11. Lady Killer by Cee Lo Green
12. Body Talk Pts. 1 & 2 by Robyn
13. Adrift by The Red Sea Pedestrians
14. Majesty Shredding by Superchunk
15. Of The Blue Colour of the Sky by OK Go
16. The Guitar Song by Jamey Johnson
17. Transference by Spoon
18. I Learned the Hard Way by Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
19. Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine by Various
20. Maya by M.I.A.
I have to say that at first listen Plastic Beach went in too many different directions for me. However, by the end I more than appreciated the analogy between the album’s title and its musical landscape. Now, I spend a little time each day soaking up the sounds of this album. Gorillaz had already established itself as an institution where pretty much anything goes, but with Plastic Beach the “band” blends about as many musical styles as it does songs on the album (16 tracks with a running time of just over 56 minutes). Not to say that each track sticks to any kind of formula whatsoever, it absolutely does not in the most refreshing ways. Damon Albarn, the Gorillaz’ driving force, is able to convince the listener to blindly accept the transition within and between each song. You almost wonder if this capacity for persuasion was necessary to convince the eclectic group of artists that make the Plastic Beach what it is. Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash, Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, Sinfonia Viva, Mark e Smith, and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble all join the regular cast of mysterious cartoon Gorillaz to create an album that will spend a lot of time on my playlist. Take a walk along the Plastic Beach and you will pick something out of the sand that’s worth your while.
The Malian duo Amadou & Mariam have been in nearly constant rotation on my ipod and home stereo since I became aware of their music with the 2005 release of Dimanche a Bamako. I knew little of the couple’s inspiring story then, but responded immediately to the music they create. Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayokothan, who are both blind, met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, 30 years ago and have been making amazing and infectious music ever since. Already huge stars in West Africa and Europe; in recent years Amadou & Mariam have gained a large following in the indie rock world where they have become a show stealing staple at large festivals, which has helped spread their popularity across the glode. The duo’s latest title, Welcome to Mali, has received almost universal, and I would say very well deserved, critical acclaim and I can't stop listening to it. Even without the faintest clue as to what the lyrics of the songs are saying (the couple sings primarily in French), it is easy to hear why the global spread of Amadou & Mariam's hypnotic sound cannot be stopped.
Welcome to Mali
The other day while listening to online radio at last.fm, I heard the sweet voice of Jazmine Sullivan singing to a funky, rhythmic beat. I was tapping my foot before my brain engaged with what the lyrics actually were: "I bust the windows out your car..." I then had to laugh that a song so fun and upbeat to listen to was about getting even with a cheating boyfriend.
Then, I remembered a song I heard on a country radio station by Carrie Underwood called "Before He Cheats" (on her album Some Hearts). That one is all about knives and ball bats intended to help men stop their cheating ways! So, it seems this topic is universal enough that it spans genres of music from country to rhythm and blues.
(By the way, each of our branch libraries has a different collection of music. I found Sullivan's Fearless CD at our Eastwood Branch. Our online catalog has a special link for searching music selections. Go to the catalog then select "Music Search" on the black navigation bar near the top.)
The recent death of Michael Jackson of a reported heart attack at the age of 50 will undoubtedly cause a storm of crazy stories about his life. Before we are drowning in such tales, I wanted to reflect upon one of the greatest albums of all time, Thriller. No matter how you felt about R&B at the time this album was released, you became a convert to Jackson's ability to bring together that style of music with rock, pop, dance and soul. Jackson was one of the artist who ushered in a new age in music in which artists did not feel confined to a particular style. Others were allowing other types of music to creep into their songs, but the infectious grooves of Thriller blasted through the standard conventions.
I was into roller skating when Thriller was released and I cannot remember a skating session that did not include four to five tracks from the album. Can you honestly say there is a weak song? Even today when most look through their music collection they may have only one R&B record and chances are it is Thriller. Last year I played some tracks for my daughters and they were mesmerized.
What were you doing in your life when Thriller was released? Rest in peace King of Pop and thanks for the music.
Though Seal’s most recent album, Soul, was released late last year, it took months for any of its cuts – all covers of soul standards from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s - to get any substantial radio play. In recent weeks, Seal’s cover of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ classic slow jam “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” has become a fixture on some stations’ airwaves, introducing a new generation of listeners to one of the most heartfelt lover's pleas of understanding ever put into a pop song.
The arrangement on Seal’s version lacks the lush orchestration Gamble and Huff provided the Blue Notes on their 1972 version, but the more stripped-down arrangement (reminiscent of a previous hit revival of the tune in 1989 by Simply Red) still captures the romantic essence carved into the groove of original hit. While not as intense as Blue Notes lead vocalist Teddy Pendergrass’ aching reading of the song, Seal’s unmistakeable vocal does the song justice, his soaring lead cushioned by the accompanying vocalists’ hushed, close-harmony refrains.
Anyone unfamiliar with the original versions of the songs contained on Soul should find the collection to be a decent soul primer. Seal and his production team do a fine job with the interpretations, which are all generally faithful to the original arrangements, though none of them are a patch on the originals – when you’re covering the likes of Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and Al Green, it must be understood it’s no contest. Still, with such an impeccable song selection, voiced by such a charismatic performer as Seal, Soul is a collection worth hearing beyond its breakout hit - especially if it leads listeners to the original sources.