Reviews

VARIOUS: Virtue Recording Studio (Tramp)

Wednesday, 19 April 2017 19:28 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altMost soul collectors know how important Philadelphia is/was in soul's evolution; said soul collectors can probably reel off all the big names and labels associated with the City of Brotherly Love, but it's my contention that it's only the really serious Philly soul buffs who'll be able to tell you about the city's Virtue Records. The label and its associated studio were set up in 1962 by Frank Virtue, who joined the crazy music biz after his release from the service in 1947. A talented guitarist, he formed the Virtuoso Trio who later morphed into the Virtues. The band enjoyed a 1958 hit with 'Guitar Boogie Shuffle' and with the profits he set up a studio and label. The studio located at 1618 North Broad Street, was used by Virtue's own artists and by anybody else who could afford $500 to cut their own 45... two songs of your very own which you could either issue yourself or lease to the Virtue label. Amongst the top tunes cut at Virtue's decidedly lo-fi facility are Cliff Nobles' 'The Horse' and Fantastic Johnny C's 'Boogaloo Down Broadway'.

As has become the way with rare labels, Virtue recordings are now eminently collectable and to oblige, Germany's Tramp label has just issued this lovely 21 tracker that collects together an eclectic selection of tunes cut at Virtue.

Because these are Philadelphia recordings, you can be sure that are plenty of sweet soul ballads and dancers that echo the sound of, say, the Intruders in the early/mid 60s. Amongst the best are Gene Faith's 'When My Ship Comes In', the RDM Band's 'Give Up' and The Creations' Take These Memories' which features a typical Philly falsetto lead. In truth, they're a little rougher and readier than the more polished work of Gamble and Huff, but none the worse for that.

The album also features a number of tough funk cuts – things like Bob Marshall's 'Big Ladies Man' while Richard Rome (a name familiar with Philly experts) offers a bizarre instrumental 'Ghost A Go Go' – part soul/jazz, part Northern soul.... very strange but it kind of works. Yes, this fine collection proves what proper Philly collectors know; that there was a whole lot more to Philadelphia soul than the glossy, sweet and smooth oeuvre of Gamble and Huff.

Released on 5th May, this album is absolutely essential for all Philly soul folk!

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 April 2017 19:47

 

VARIOUS: Birth Of Soul; Detroit Edition(Kent)

Wednesday, 05 April 2017 19:00 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altBack in the mid 90s UK reissue specialists Ace/Kent embarked on an ambitious and difficult project. Their compilers and consultants (including at that time pioneering soul commentator, Dave Godin) wanted to track the birth of soul music. Via four compilations, they tried (and by and large succeeded) to pin down the genesis of soul music as it evolved out of R&B, gospel, blues, doo-wop and rock and roll. They also offered a much more specific project ... a CD analysis of how Chicago contributed to the birth of soul. We were told that this was the first of several city specific albums. Well, it's been a while, but the second in that particular series has just been released.

This new 'Birth Of Soul' project offers a 24 track insight into how the Motor City helped shape the sound of proper soul music and at the same time it sets out to show that there was much, much more to Detroit than Berry Gordy's Motown monolith. To make that point the compilers have intentionally ignored Motown product, though the way things were in Detroit in the 50s and 60s (plenty of label jumping and musical moonlighting), there are lots and lots of Motown connections here.

The first track for instance, 'I Cried For My Last Time' from the Sonnettes was written by Thelma Gordy while the tambourine player in the Sonnettes was someone called Norman Whitfield. Then there's the final cut.... The Del Phis' 'Nosey Folk' . Any Motown buff will tell you that the Del Phis were the embryonic Martha and the Vandellas. Both these cuts, by the way, have never been issued before. Other Motown links come via people like Joe Hunter, JJ Barnes, Gino Washington and Popcorn Wylie. And even when the Motown link isn't named it's still there, hovering as it were, on plenty of other stuff. Wanda Williams' 'Come Back To Me', for instance, is a dead ringer for Mary Wells' Motown classic 'The One Who Really Loves You'.

Motown apart, I guess the most famous track on the set is the Donays' 'Devil In His Heart'. famous, of course, because the Beatles covered it.... a tribute to how important soul was in the early days of the beat boom.

Well-known artists on the set include Betty Lavette who here is billed as "Betty Lavett" on her 1963 Atlantic outing 'Here I Am' , Tony "The Entertainer" Clarke on 'It's Easy (another previously unissued track) and the wonderful Barbara Lewis who offers 'Think A Little Sugar', the B side to her career defining 'Hello Stranger'. Don't, though, ignore the featured unknowns... artists like The Volumes, The Pen Etts, Priscilla Page and Harry Reid all played a remarkable and worthwhile role in the birth of the music that we all love... soul.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 April 2017 19:06

 

BECCA STEVENS: 'Regina' (GroundUP)

Friday, 31 March 2017 12:38 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                alt

As it's barely April, it might seem a tad early - and presumptuous, perhaps - to make a nomination for album of the year, but I've no doubt that by this year's end when we're reflecting on the musical highs of 2017, Becca Stevens' fourth long player, 'Regina,' will be near the top of most music critics' lists. Trying to define the sound and style of this 32-year-old North Carolina song siren is a tough ask given that her music is  both allusive and elusive - there are hints of Joni Mitchell and some palpable Appalachian folk elements in Stevens' musical DNA but listen closely and you'll also hear subtle jazz and soul nuances, a soupcon of pop and even, on this new album, a grandiose hint of '70s prog-rock. These disparate elements coalesce on 'Regina' to create something unclassifiable that on paper, perhaps, shouldn't work - but in practice, somehow, and quite miraculously, Stevens uses a special kind of alchemy to seamlessly bind all her influences together into a unique, beautifully-wrought tapestry of sound, aided by producer Troy Miller, who devised alluring widescreen soundscapes for the singer to act out her narrative.

And what a narrative it is. In essence, 'Regina' explores the psyche of female monarchs - both real and imagined ones -  who function as the main inspiration for what is a good old-fashioned concept album (a staple of rock and pop in the '70s). Thematically, its central conceit might sound too esoteric for some listeners but the music - mostly gorgeous and otherworldly - can be enjoyed for its own sake. Indeed, Stevens could be singing in Mandarin and it would still sound amazing, such is the luminescent beauty of her voice. But this girl possesses a beautiful sound and intellect - a deadly combination - and that's what makes 'Regina' such a stimulating affair. The music - densely layered, with stacked vocals and ethereal backdrops -  seduces the ear but its lyrical content makes it an even more potent force. 

There's so much to appreciate on 'Regina' that it would seem almost churlish to single out individual highlights. Indeed, it's one of those rare albums these days that can listened to from beginning to end without the need for  hitting the skip button. 'Venus,' a thoughtful and alluring ode to the classical world's queen of love, opens the proceedings. With its astral lead vocals and multi-tracked heavenly choir (with Laura Mvula assisting) it sets the sonic tone for the rest of the album. The superb folk-infused 'Lean On' is darker and  more reflective while 'Both Still Here' - propelled by plucked chords from Stevens' mandolin-like charango - has a gorgeous haunting quality.  

In an acute change of style, the dramatic 'Queen Mab' - inspired by the fairy queen mentioned in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet - opens with closely-harmonised vocals that, bizarrely, recall the work of Brit prog-rock behemoth, Yes, during their 'Close To the Edge' phase in the early '70s. But these hypnotic celestial harmonies are juxtaposed by a thumping R&B/hip-hop beat, which certainly makes for  startling contrast. Different, too, and seemingly out of kilter stylistically with the rest of the album, is 'Mercury,' a New Wave-ish rocker that stretches the album's regal conceit to breaking point by being a tribute to Queen's flamboyant frontman, Freddie Mercury (the lyrics are ingeniously drawn from Mercury interview quotes).  But Stevens is at her best on mellower songs, like 'Harbour Hawk,' the delicate 'Ophelia' (another Shakespeare-insired piece) and 'The Muse,' the latter co-written by and featuring ex-Byrd and CSN&Y member, David Crosby. Musical polymath, Jacob Collier, joins Stevens on the album's closer, a delightful, though perhaps slightly incongruous, duet take on Stevie Wonder's 'As,' which rounds off the album by bringing an upbeat note to the proceedings.

It might be premature to hail 'Regina' as a masterpiece, perhaps, but it is undoubtedly a significant, coming-of-age opus from a supremely-talented singer/songwriter who has more than lived up to the promise of her earlier recordings. With the magisterial 'Regina' she's not only set a new benchmark for herself but also raised the bar for other female singers to aspire to. For now, then, she is queen of all she surveys. 

(CW) 4/5

 

 

 

Last Updated on Friday, 31 March 2017 12:58

 

ROHEY: 'A Million Things' (Jazzland)

Thursday, 30 March 2017 12:13 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                                 altIn recent weeks, noted UK tastemakers and radio broadcasters, Gilles Peterson and Jamie Cullum, have been vociferously championing hotly-tipped Norwegian quartet, ROHEY, whose keenly-anticipated 12-track debut album has just been issued via Bugge Wesseltoft's influential Oslo-based Jazzland label. Taking their name from their lead singer, soulful-voiced Rohey Taalah - who sings in English -  the group's sound is a striking amalgam of neo-soul, nu-jazz and jagged, broken beat flavours and what results is an arresting hybrid that comes across like Jill Scott fronting Hiatus Kaiyote or D-Influence, perhaps.

The group's second single, 'I Found Me,' is the album's opener and what's striking about it is the juxtaposition of co-writer Ivan Blomqvist's fusion-esque, spacey synth chords with Taalal's mellow vocals, which ride on a sinewy, acid jazz-like backbeat provided by bassist Kristian B Jacobsen and drummer Henrik Lødøen. The song's lit up by a chorus that's as infectious as a winter cold. By contrast, 'Tell Me,' illustrates the group's sensitive side - it's a beautiful ballad lead by Blomqvist's eloquent acoustic piano chords. 'Is This All There Is,' released last year as the group's debut single, is more aggressive, boasting a dramatic Nai Palm-style hook line that reeks of Antipodean future funk ensemble, Hiatus Kaitoye. 

Other highlights are the pulsating, fusion-esque 'Can't Get This' - which speeds along at high velocity - the more strident 'My Recipe' - where Taalal's vocals are more declamatory (think Ledisi meets Chaka Khan), and the gently throbbing 'Cellphones & Pavements.'  Also subdued and reflective are the tracks 'Responsibilities,' and 'My Dear,' the latter an emotionally-moving ballad characterised by jazzy chords and deftly-nuanced vocals.

As debuts go, this is a strong one by the Scandinavian quartet who look set to accrue many followers outside of their native Norway. Rohey Taalal will, understandably, perhaps, get most of the plaudits for her outstanding vocal performances but that shouldn't eclipse the sterling work by the rest of her band mates, whose contributions are just as important in the shaping of the group's distinctive sound. Very impressive.  

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Sunday, 02 April 2017 18:28

 

JAMIROQUAI: 'Automaton' (Virgin)

Thursday, 30 March 2017 10:45 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                 altIt's been a long time coming - seven years, to be precise - but finally Jamiroquai's eighth album and the follow-up to 2010's 'Rock Dust Light Star' is here. So, the crucial question is: has it been worth the wait? To this writer's ears - who confesses to have followed Jay Kay's troupe since their days as an Acid Jazz outfit in the early '90s - it certainly has, though no doubt there will be some naysayers who think the opposite is true. That's because Jamiroquai is a band that seems to polarise opinion. Despite selling millions of records around the world and having legions of enthusiastic fans, they've also got their fair share of detractors who deem them 'uncool.' Even so, 25 years on from their inception, Jamiroquai are still going strong and their timeless, immediately identifiable, sound has managed to see off many fleeting, 'here today, gone tomorrow,' pop music fads and trends. But they are more than mere survivalists - every time they return they do so in style and serve up something special. Quality is always guaranteed.

So, what of 'Automaton'? Does it cut the mustard? According to the band's talisman, Jay Kay - the original "cat in the hat" before Gregory Porter usurped his sobriquet - the album's theme was inspired "in recognition of the rise of artificial intelligence and technology in our world today" and explores "how we as humans are beginning to forget the more pleasant, simple and eloquent things in life and in our environment including our relationship with one another as human beings."  It sounds heavy but even if you don't buy into the album's central conceit, the music can be appreciated for its own sake and on its own terms. Stylistically, there's more of an emphasis on electronic effects - in keeping with the album's A.I.-referencing title, no doubt - but thankfully, all of the classic Jamiroquai features are there: Jay Kay's sinuous and soulful vocals; big infectious choruses that get lodged and looped in the grey matter; and irresistibly funky dance floor grooves

The euphoric opener, 'Shake It Up' gets things under way in fine style. It's driven by Giorgio Moroder-esque bubbling robotic sequencers over a four-on-the-floor beat. The addition of Chic-style violin swoops adds an authentic retro vibe. As mirror ball dance grooves go, it's very addictive and the refrain is a bona fide anthem that revives the spirit of the band's previous big hits, 'Canned Heat' and 'Virtual Insanity.'

Cyborg sequencers, vocoders and synths dominate the quirky title cut - already issued as a single - though it breaks out with a soaring, widescreen Euro disco chorus.  Underlining the fact that Kay is an expert at creating songs with earworm refrains are a series of memorable, dance floor, fire-starters  - namely the dirty, funked-up 'Hot Property,' 'Cloud 9,' 'We Can Do It,' and the more urgent 'Superfresh.' The tempo drops a notch for the super-catchy 'Dr Buzz' with its hint of Sly & The Family Stone in its rhythm track and Steely Dan in its chorus. 'Summer Girl' is also more laid back though it still is propelled by an effervescent dance pulse while 'Night In The Jungle' is more atmospheric, riding on a sleek, funky bass line. In acute contrast, there's a pronounced jazz feel - in terms of its sophisticated harmonic content - that defines the turbo-charged 'Vitamin,' which boasts a frantic backbeat, a wild sax solo, and sweeping orchestral strings. It's another top-notch cut on an album that doesn't have any weak or sub-standard songs and which in terms of quality is right up there with previous Jamiroquai releases.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 March 2017 19:47

 

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