- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 19 February 2013
Big Boi "Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors" Def Jam
It doesn't seem like that long ago that Big Boi sat squarely atop the Hip-Hop world as one half of the inimitable OutKast. But time gets away from me, and I realize that their last vital release was almost ten years ago. Big Boi hasn't exactly been prolific in the interim, but he has two solo records to his credit. And they've come in relatively fast succession over the course of the last two years. The latest is called Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. I don't know what the title alludes to, but if rumors of an OutKast reunion can be considered vicious, then you can count me amongst the legion of fans that are hoping for just such a vicious event. I like Big Boi's newest. But it isn't a game changer. And I know he's got a game changer in him. He kind of invented his own game, and now he kind of has live up to it. Vicious Lies will hold us over until that happens.
I'll say this much for the new record: Big Boi is not just retracing familiar patterns from his past. Many of the songs feature a slower delivery. I mean, you can actually discern the lyrics without reading them. It takes effort, but it's engaging. In the past, it just wasn't possible. He ramps it up to previous high speeds on a couple of tunes, but overall the whole thing feels a bit more deliberate. It also feels significantly less catchy. Which makes it a little less engaging. There's absolutely nothing on here that's as singable as "The Way You Move." But there's nothing offensive about the quality of the songs either. And there are lots of intriguing sonic explorations. Musically, some of the songs on Vicious would not be at all out of place on a Gnarls Barkley record. As is the case with most every popular Hip-Hop release nowadays, this one is rife with guest artists. Someone is "featured" on almost every song. The two exceptions to that rule are an intro ("Ascending") and "Apple Of My Eye" which is one of the more musically capricious songs on the record. Sleepy Brown is one of the album's featured guests and that gives things a bit of an OutKast vibe. There's still plenty of humor in the grooves too. I've said it before: There are as many laughs on a Big Boi record (OutKast or solo) as there are on my old Richard Pryor platters. And that's no small feat. Overall, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors is one of my favorite recent Hip-Hop releases, but that's due as much to a lack of competition as anything else. It feels a little bit like a bookmark in Big Boi's career. Something to let us know he's still in the game, but nothing Earth shattering.
The two vinyl records in this set are noisier than most. They crackle a bit straight out of the wrapper. It's nothing too serious, but it's there. They're pressed on standard weight marbled purple discs with a lyrics insert and not much else. I'm already looking forward to what Big Boi does next. That's a testament to the man's talent and staying power. This one will be used sparingly as background music, not as an essential Hip-Hop record requiring hours of study. He's already set the bar too high for that to be the case with this one. Still, it's way better than most.
Miles Davis "Round About Midnight" Speakers Corner
I was cruising along through life pretty smoothly a while back with little stress and a ton of free time. Then, I got a better paying job that brought with it a silo's worth of anxiety and misery from eight in the morning until six at night. That spurred me to finally look into what I wanted to do for a living which required a ton of soul searching and ultimately lead me back to school. Now, I have a different, though still stressful, gig with more scheduling flexibility to accommodate my schooling which brings its own pressure and I keep on the move from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed. Because I want to. Because I have some opportunities that I am thankful for and I want to make the most of them. It's a privilege with a price. And, when I'm paying that price everyday from sun up to sun down, it's nice to have a record like Miles Davis' 'Round About Midnight with which to steal a few relaxing moments every now and then. Different folks get different results from different records and styles of music, and I'm sure as hell glad I have Miles in my corner come chilling time. And I'm glad that Speakers Corner put out a proper analogue version of it to keep things pure.
This was Miles' first effort on Columbia Records although it was recorded while he was still under contract with Prestige. This is his famed first quintet including Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland, and Paul Chambers as players. The astute Davis student may notice that this is the same personnel on the final Prestige titles which included Cookin', Workin', Steamin', and Relaxin'. The songs on those four records were culled from two whole recording sessions while 'Round About Midnight took three sessions of its own. And, as I understand it, these works were recorded very shortly after Davis first kicked heroine. (I'm no Davis historian so I don't know if sobriety stuck or if there were relapses. Any schoolboy knows that bop jazz and heroine went together like peanut butter and chocolate. For whatever reason.) Thelonious Monk's classic standard "'Round Midnight" kicks things off and you realize right away that this is a "stranded on a desert island record." As in, you wouldn't want to be stuck alone without it. Put this one on your checklist right above Mr. Wilson. It's essential. Charlie Parker and Cole Porter have songs on here too (the former's tune a bit too hot to fit in the relaxing mode) along with Davis' take on "Dear Old Stockholm." Add the classic nature of the compositions to the essence of each player's style and you have yourself a bona fide Jazz Masterpiece.
And, of course, the Speakers Corner version is beautifully transparent. On one hand, it would be hard to mess these recordings up. Just stay out of the way and get the songs on wax with minimal processing. The Speakers version has such clarity that you can feel Davis' mute hit his horn. You can almost see the players taking visual cues from each other. It is gorgeous. MoFi is working on their own version and it will be interesting to compare the two as MoFi tends to put their sonic stamp on their work. For now, I'll rest peacefully with my Speakers Corner version. That's a lot to be thankful for.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.
Ann Peebles "I Can't Stand The Rain" Pure Pleasure Records
I've got a weak spot for female vocalists that sometimes gets the best of me. I find myself mentally signing off on songs that I would normally dismiss out of hand. This is even true of newer music and artists. I'll decline to mention which ones specifically because I have a crabby reputation to uphold. But I'm not a bit embarrassed to say that I finally picked up a fine reissue of Ann Peebles' classic I Can't Stand The Rain. I've been a fan of the title track for as long as I can remember which is interesting because I'm not convinced that Peebles' original was the one that initially turned me on. But I think it was. I used to listen to a ton of oldie Soul stations, soaking up as much Motown as my ears could carry. This ain't Motown, gang. This is Memphis Soul. The Hi Records variety. That's some of the finest on the market on the strength of Al Green's catalog alone. I'm glad they made room for Peebles in that famous little studio of Willie Mitchell's. You are too whether you realize it or not.
I'd been rocking out to Lowell George's version of "I Can't Stand The Rain" for so many years that Peebles' version almost felt like a rediscovery to me. It's held up. It was one of John Lennon's favorite recordings, and it's easy to see why. This is basically an Al Green record with Peebles' vocals on top of it. Except that Peebles co-wrote most of the material on Rain with her husband. That Hi Records sound that Willie Mitchell conjured up so sweetly for so long is absolutely unmistakable. I used to say that you could spot an Al Green song immediately after the first drum beat without the benefit of even having heard Green's vocals. Then, I heard I Can't Stand The Rain. Now, you have to wait until someone starts singing. The vibe is that similar. It's as comforting as a butter biscuit with honey. Extra butter, extra honey. Rain has all the same players that the classic Green albums did (Hodges brothers all around, plus the Memphis Strings and Horns), and it shares a similar stylistic diversity as well. I mean, it's all Soul, but there's Country/Soul in "(You Keep Me) Hangin' On" (which is most assuredly NOT the disco version), and Funk/Soul in "Run, Run, Run," and every Soul in between. All the ingredients are perfectly balanced like the finest Memphis barbecue. But John Lennon was right. "I Can't Stand The Rain" stands out high above the rest. That's not a knock, that's a compliment. You could ride the respect earned from that single for the entirety of a career. It's been done with lesser songs, believe me.
If you've ever heard just one of the classic Al Green records from his '70's prime, then you know how transparent and warm these recordings are. Pure Pleasure did the right thing with I Can't Stand The Rain too. They stayed the hell out of the way. This single, heavy record is quiet and deep. The soundstage is set to accent every player in his or her own time and place. These are intimate, quiet songs with as much or more power than some of Detroit's flashiest Soul music. If you're in the mood for love or if you're mending a broken heart, these songs are for you.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit "Live In Alabama" Lightning Rod Records
I'm not sure when Jason Isbell got sober, but I suspect it was prior to the recording of his new live album with the 400 Unit, Live From Alabama. Everyone knows that Isbell's a hell of a player and one of the finest writers we've got. But his performances were a little uneven in the drinking days. The playing could get a bit showy, the singing a little lost. There's none of that on Alabama. That former inconsistency would have stood out in sharp relief too as Isbell is now holding down all the guitar duties. Regardless of the timeline and what happened when, Live From Alabama is a fine document of what this band does in concert. What they do is rock. I don't think anyone will debate that with me after hearing this.
Those whiskey years left Isbell's voice gloriously ragged. The cigarettes probably help too. One habit at a time, I guess. "Goddamn Lonely Love" is one of my favorite songs by anyone ever, and the timbre of Isbell's voice on this performance ups the ante for an already emotional tune that can bring you to tears in the right circumstances... or the wrong ones depending on how you view it. The Alabama version benefits from a horn section too. And a guitar solo that'll sneak up on you before it blows you out of the water. The set contains selections from Isbell's time with the Drive-By Truckers and all of his subsequent releases as a solo artist along with a couple of covers that should be familiar to any Isbell fan ("Heart On A String" as recorded by Candi Staton and Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane"). It sums his career up pretty effectively, but would have needed to be at least twice as long to really get it all out there. "Codeine" didn't make the cut, nor did "Chicago Promenade." I could go on, but I'd rather rejoice in the fact that we now have these old Truckers tunes on an official Isbell release. It's hard to imagine liking these versions better than the ones he made with his former band, but I actually do in a lot of cases. At the time, Isbell seemed a perfect fit for DBT, but in hindsight you can feel the pull that eventually caused their separation as Isbell is now able to get his vision out there without anyone else's input. These tunes have aged like fine wine and may be a little more mellow for it, but no less powerful. The 400 Unit long ago found their own footing and sound, and it still amazes me to think of the wealth of talent that seems to spring up like kudzu from that fertile Northern Alabama landscape. It's like they have a damn pipeline. The Alabama Shakes may be the most visible of the class now, but there's more where they came from, I guarantee it. The best thing about it is that the newer, younger artists seem to have so much respect for the ones that came before. Which is obviously as it should be. If only Hip-Hop had such an ear for history...
If you like Isbell or if you're looking for an introduction, buy this record on vinyl. It comes with a download coupon, the two records are quiet if not flawless, and the gatefold packaging is sturdy with pictures from the shows. Simple and pure. Much like the music. If everything were this honest, this world could get along. Here's to hope.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.
Cody ChesnuTT "Landing On A Hundred" One Little Indian Records
Cody ChesnuTT is an enigma. A friend turned me on to his debut way back in 2002. It was called The Headphone Masterpiece, but it was way too spread out and lacking in focus to be an actual masterpiece. It made an impression though, right? A 36 song debut? It got him on MTV as a collaborator with The Roots (they covered "The Seed"). It got him some credibility. And then he disappeared. I was always vaguely aware of the Atlanta expatriate's presence in Southern California, but I don't remember him making it up north very often, if at all. (It seems like there was a cancelled San Francisco show in there somewhere. Maybe I was dreaming.) Anyhow, ChesnuTT isn't hard to find in 2013. Landing On A Hundred should take care of that for the foreseeable future. But who knows? The guy clearly has a Funky Drummer in his head and could march off in any direction from here. Let's revel in the material and live in the moment, shall we? You'll be glad you did.
The difference between Headphone and A Hundred is the difference between Meet the Beatles and Revolver times a thousand. Headphone was fun, funny, and beyond low-fi. It was clearly made in a bedroom with a cassette deck while Landing On A Hundred is a fully functional Soul-Funk Machine fueled by strings, horns, backing vocalists and a little less humor. But no less fun. It seems like ChesnuTT has found some manner of religion. Or maybe he's expressing some found form from long ago. Regardless, A Hundred is a lot more accessible than what's come before with Marvin Gaye being the most obvious influence, hands down. That's true of both the instrumentation and the vocal presentation. But ChesnuTT is no revisionist. He's doing his own thing his way. Again. There are multiple African references along with the spiritual ones. It might be safe to assume that the two go hand in hand for ChesnuTT, but I wouldn't go making too many assumptions about this guy. You can probably assume that he's going to come at you from multiple angles. Beyond that, I'd assume that he's going to march to that aforementioned mental Funky Drummer's tune, and that said drummer will take him someplace compelling. Through all the layers, all the personality that bursts through every verse and passage, all the lyrical twists and the surprise instrumentation - this is easily the most vital new Soul record that I've heard recently.
Something I read somewhere back there made me think that Cody ChesnuTT is a bit of a head case. The kind of guy that can't get out of his talent's way long enough to get a serious foothold in the music industry. Maybe I read too much into the info I found, but the vinyl presentation for Landing On A Hundred backs up the notion in some ways. The two discs are housed in above average inner sleeves, but the sleeves are mismatched. One has rounded corners while the other does not. The record was cut at 45rpm, but there's absolutely no mention of that anywhere in the packaging. The pressings are flawless, but the discs are both slightly warped. But if you're in it for the music, you can't do much better for new music in this genre. It's a well-balanced effort that points to a bright future for the artist. If he wants it...