And it probably goes without saying that what the world finally caught onto was a watered down, safer version of what came before. A Tribe Called Quest was a huge part of what came before. I always maintained that my mom would have liked their debut if I could have convinced her to listen to it. I didn’t even try. It wasn’t their greatest album, but it served notice. Tribe released what might be their strongest effort ever in November of 2016. Right before it hit the fan. It’s called We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service. They are not into the whole brevity thing. They’re into being great.
Man, I can’t say enough about what a relief it is to find some strong, new Hip-Hop that doesn’t involve all those cliché tricks and spastic, seizure-inducing beats. Tasteful samples used tastefully are lovely and rare, but are in plentiful supply here. Gosh, that’s nice. They sample Elton John on “Solid Wall of Sound,” and it provides momentum to the tune in the same way that a ride cymbal signifies a little more get up and go in a more traditional Rock or Pop tune. There are appearances by some of my fave faces on today’s stage. Faces wearing names like “Jack White,” “Andre 3000,” and “Kendrick Lamar.” A rapper calling himself “Consequence” has some of my preferred verses on the whole thing. All that, and we haven’t even gotten to the genius of the group’s core members. Q-Tip is slick as ever and tougher than a woodpecker’s lips and, of course, there is Phife Dawg whose body, like so many other great artists’, did not survive 2016. I was totally taken off guard by this record. Both by the very nature of its release (I didn’t know that Tribe was working on anything or that they ever would again) and its quality. It’s easily one of the strongest releases of 2016 in any genre, and I believe that it will age as well, if not better, than the most classic Tribe material. It’s a perfect update on their classic sound, and it’s perfectly original too. That’s a deft trick, and Tribe makes it happen so casually that you almost feel like it’s 1995 until you start to notice the Trump allusions and the group’s observations on other current events too horrible to name. If you’re a Hip-Hop fan, this one’s for you. It’s an instant classic. I can’t imagine that I’m alone in this opinion. It’s as close to a fact as we can get now, maybe. Run with it.
These two discs were pressed at United Record Pressing in Nashville, and they actually sound great. Someone there must have subversively pressed some quality platters while the boss wasn’t looking. Sign o’ the Times, indeed. There’s a download code, and tons of fun in the lyric sheet. Detailed liners on who’s doing what, when, and where are included too. And awesomeness. And Love. Just what we need right now, whether or not we’re smart enough to realize it.
We looked at a Fruit Bats record here back in November/December, and I promised there would be more to come. It’s been a while since I’ve been this excited about a current, working band, and now I’m all in. Seems they just came off a hiatus, and released a new record last year. This is not that record. This is Tripper, the one they released in 2011. Missing Fruit Bats’ opening sets for My Morning Jacket’s San Francisco shows in 2015 is the biggest live musical blunder I’ve made since I left a Greenhornes show early on a school night. Those are rough lessons that will inform my future priorities. In the meantime, I’m gonna keep working my way through the Fruit Bats catalog. I’ve picked up three of theirs in the last couple of months. I have at least one more to go. Excite.
The Record Store Day title that we explored was recorded over the course of a single week in a mostly acoustic format. It had some covers and some instrumentals. It’s a remarkable album, but maybe not as representative of the Fruit Bats sound as what I’ve heard since. Band leader, Eric D. Johnson, seems to favor strummy acoustic guitar work, but that’s just one of a thousand layers to play around in on Tripper. There’s plenty of Beatlesy piano, but these sound like songs written on the guitar to me. There are electric solos, and atmospheric noodlings. Catchy choruses and hand claps. Carnival organs and found percussion. And, on top if it all, we get to listen to Johnson sing. He sings solo, he harmonizes with himself, and probably with others. He can hit the high notes without straining. Reminds me of a personal trainer that I work out with who designs the most grueling routines imaginable. She does the workouts with the class, sweat streaming from every available pore, and is still able to scream at the students and generally harass the hell out of everyone present. Full throat, no matter how intense the exercises are. The strength of Johnson’s voice suggests that he could hit these notes underwater. Choose your own superlative to describe how effortlessly this man lets musicality fly freely from his face. “The Banishment Song” will illustrate this to you with great clarity and detail should you choose to seek it out. And, if you don’t like songs sticking around in your dome for months at a time, you should avoid “Picture of a Bird” like you’d avoid those Beatles. As the title implies, there’s more of a psychedelic element to these tunes than I’ve found elsewhere in the Fruit Bats inventory. There seems to be an overriding concept that ties the songs together. It might even tell a story, but I’m not following it. I’m in it for the grooves, and they are not in short supply. I love it.
Sub Pop did this one so we can thank them for the included download, and the nifty lyrical (huge) poster included. The outer die cut sleeve reveals the inner sleeve’s artwork. Pressing is simply fine, not perfect, and the set is priced agreeably. I’m thrilled to add Fruit Bats to the exceedingly small roster of modern Rock bands that I support. I’ll be busy with this for a while…
I love listening to Dwight Yoakam’s music. He seems to exist outside the reach of any concerns for what’s popular or going to sell. And I don’t typically love really large crowds of humans, but I love the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Every year, I hope that both entities will join forces and that I’ll be able to catch them together in October at Golden Gate Park. It’s worked out for me a couple of times. In fact, I’ve never seen Yoakam perform outside the context of that festival. Maybe he loves it as much as I do because his latest release is called Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… and it’s a collection of Dwight (and Prince!) tunes performed in the Bluegrass style with some of the genre’s heaviest hitters as backers. If you like roots music and you’re not excited by the prospect; you might want to check your pulse. I can scarcely imagine a better pairing. Like sunshine and lemonade. It’s a treat.
So many strong songs on this set. The ones that I’m most familiar with are “Sad, Sad Music” and “Guitars, Cadillacs.” (I just noticed that a quarter of the songs have commas in the title. So, if you’re into commas…) the one I currently love the most is “What I Don’t Know.” It has a darker underbelly than the other tunes, which provides some nice contrasts and dynamics as far as the material and lyrical subject matter is concerned. Yoakam closes the set with a cover of “Purple Rain.” It works well enough as a cool little novelty bit, but unfortunately it comes off as the set’s weakest link. The strain of forcing the tune into the chosen format seems to sap some of its natural power, but it’s a lovely gesture, and it’s absolutely the kind of thing that pop music fans will consume with gusto no matter what. Well played, I say (literally and figuratively). “Listen” is a discovery to my ears, but was originally released around the turn of the century. I have all three of Yoakam’s albums released in this decade in addition to his first two from the ‘80s. I’m currently getting more play out of the newer material, mostly because I’m allergic to 80s production values. Swimmin’ Pools is a perfect compromise between the two poles. You get some of the older tunes with more pleasing sonics, and certainly a more organic presentation. You get a little closer to Dwight Yoakam, basically. I’d have given my left leg to have “If There Was A Way” on the Swimmin’ Pools roster, but I wasn’t a consultant on this project. That tune is on 2000’s HYPERLINK “http://dwightyoakamacoustic.net/” \t “_blank” dwightyoakamacoustic.net which was only released on CD and includes Yoakam performing 25 of his tunes with his voice and an acoustic guitar. That one and this one pair nicely, I just wish the older work was available on vinyl. Obviously. I’m lucky to have the latest.
Sugar Hill did this one, and they did it right. The single disc is thin and light blue. It’s also dead silent, and it carries all of the info in these recordings valiantly. You get a download out of the deal and an inner sleeve with session photos and lyrics. I’m tickled with the whole thing, and I think you will be too if you like Dwight and/or Bluegrass. Like peanut butter and chocolate…
I noticed a while back that Analogue Productions had a couple of Atco titles in their pipeline, which is really exciting because I have some original Atco works that just don’t get the job done due to questionable pressings. I’m talking about new old-stock records that were ticky and crackly write out of the wrapper. One of those titles was by Dr. John, and AP recently put out his phenomenal Gumbo on 200-gram vinyl. My original copy was actually just fine, but it didn’t approach the level of magic found in these grooves. This is an unbelievable album presented unbelievably. If there are more Dr. John and Atco titles in the offing, we are in for a ride. Saddle up.
Golly, I don’t know where to start. “Iko Iko” kicks things off on this album of traditional New Orleans music performed by a Crescent City master. Let’s begin there. It’s my favorite version of the tune that I’m aware of. I’ve never seen Dr. John not open a show with it, but I’ve never heard a live version that I prefer to Gumbo’s. It involves one of Harold Battiste’s catchiest horn arrangements, and, of course, the Doctor’s vocal delivery is within the Top Five Funkiest of All Time. It’s hard to move on from it. Could get stuck on repeat. But there are also versions of “Big Chief,” “Stack-a-Lee,” and “Tipitina” to contend with. “Junko Partner” involves one of the Funkiest vocal breakdowns you can handle without having to open up a window. Dr. John’s piano playing shines throughout, and this AP version of Gumbo gives you the “in the room” feel that we all are looking for when we buy vinyl and listen critically. It’s an immersive experience. If you love New Orleans music, I’m probably preaching to the choir. If this title has eluded you somehow, then you owe it to yourself to remedy that ASAP. Kevin Gray has this one right where we all want it. (I don’t know how long it takes to remaster an album in a way that suits the audiophile, but if it takes more than an hour, I don’t know when Gray finds time to sleep. Luckily for us, the guy is everywhere.) The instruments are shockingly present. You can hear notes decay for what seems like five minutes, which is a testament to the sublimely transparent background that was achieved for this release. And the music is damn near as fun as a trip to New Orleans. It would not be too much to say that this album can “take you there.” I love it, and I have for a long time. I’ve just never heard it so clearly and so immediately. Its bananas.
If you have any experience with Analogue Productions’ work, you know that there were no corners cut as part of this process. The cover is heavy, the disc is too, the artwork is faithfully recreated (though slightly less sharp than the original’s) with a minimum of 21st century branding and no barcode. The album is a full-on classic. AP has already produced an Atco title by Otis Redding. They could dig into his and Dr. John’s catalogs and just hang there for a while, as far as I’m concerned. It would be way less crazy than listening to the news. And way more fun.
Jim James, the badass leader of the badass My Morning Jacket, released an album for our times (“dropped” it, if you have not achieved a certain age) just a handful of hours prior to last November’s “election.” It’s called Eternally Even, and lots of folks consider it to be a political work, but I’m not so sure. James seems more concerned with our divisiveness than with a specific legislative position. Of course, one might argue that our lack of unity in 2017 is a result of divisive politicians, but I think we can blame fear for that and for discord, generally. James has gone on record as being quite afraid of the Commander in Tweet’s policies, mostly because James feels like we’re being pulled further apart from each other rather than the opposite. He doesn’t like it. He likes love. Lots of us still do. Believe it or not.
I’m a little late on this one as the vinyl version tailed the digital formats by weeks. By the time I’d heard the work, the Presidency had been determined. Somehow. Eternally Even began as a film score that was too weird for the film’s decision makers. The instrumentals were shelved, and James fleshed them out with lyrics later. James seems to employ more lush and ethereal arrangements as a solo artist than he does as a band leader. If you don’t read along with the included lyric sheet, you might miss the message entirely. Because the sonic effect equals what I imagine it would be like to float in a warm pool of glittery nail polish. A spoonful of sugar to make all this bitter fruit go down, perhaps. I saw him play a few of these tunes live last October, and he blazed precious few guitar solos. He was mostly unencumbered by instruments at all, although he did occasionally get behind the keyboard too. Mostly, he stalked the stage, made funny hand gestures, and behaved eccentrically – as is his wont. This is a man who glides across the Earth spreading messages of peace and unity like some sort of dinosaur that somehow escaped that asteroid. Between his message and his Soulful Sonic Palette, one gets the impression that Jim James could become this era’s Curtis Mayfield if he decided to adopt these mannerisms full-time. This album presents itself as a cohesive whole. There aren’t really any songs that I see myself keeping on repeat, but I have already listened to Eternally Even in its entirety twice this morning. And not because I needed the familiarity. I’ve heard it plenty. If there’s an overarching lyrical theme in here, I’d say it has something to do with seizing the present moment. Acting from where you are, with what is available to you, right now, without hesitation. Ironically, that’s probably something that everyone can get behind, even if some of us use the moment to spread fear and marginalize. But those folks don’t make up James’ audience. I doubt they can even hear him. In that way, we may be eternally uneven. I’m glad I landed on my side.
This single, heavy record is well pressed and mostly silent in all the right ways. It was specifically mastered for vinyl, and comes in cool packaging involving a matte finished gatefold cover, and poster/lyric sheet. Lots of punchy bass and breathy highs. Cool mixture of synthesized and organic sounds. A sign o’ the times. Come on in. The water is… glittery.