JAMES TAYLOR QUARTET: 'Soundtrack From Electric Black' (Audio Network)

Thursday, 29 November 2018 12:57 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                       altIn the vanguard of the original acid jazz explosion of the late-'80s, the James Taylor Quartet are now rightly considered a British institution. They've undoubtedly been one of the hardest-working bands in the UK during the last thirty years, racking up hundreds (maybe even thousands) of gigs and releasing a whopping 27 albums (this calculation excludes numerous compilations, as well as three LPs under the name the New Jersey Kings,  and six album-length forays into library music). There's no doubt, though, that 'Soundtrack From Electric Black' is a unique entry in their extensive discography and a major watermark in their storied history. That's because it's the first time that the group have recorded in tandem with a full orchestra (they recorded it in the iconic Abbey Road studio, no less). The end result is a glorious widescreen version of the group's signature meld of funk, soul, and jazz flavours.

From their inception way back in 1987, JTQ have shown an appreciation of vintage movie and TV soundtrack music. In fact, the focus of their debut album, 'Mission Impossible,'  was film and small screen themes that included their acid jazz takes on Lalo Schifrin's classic title cut as well as John Barry's 'Goldfinger' and Herbie Hancock's 'Blow Up.' Now, though, 31 years later, Hammond hero Taylor and his cohorts have created their own soundtrack album and it proves to be a thrilling cache of cinematic  grooves and moods.

The opener, 'Electric Black,' is a tense piece with dramatic orchestral flourishes and replete with stylistic echoes of Lalo Schifrin during his 'Dirty Harry' phase in the early '70s. It's not derivative in any way, though - rather (and this goes for the album as a whole) it's more of a homage to American movie music of the '60s and '70s. More action-packed tracks come in the shape of the propulsive 'Black Belting' driven by wah-wah guitar, the more exotic 'Heidi's Revenge' - characterised by dancing flutes and legato strings - and the Latin-flavoured 'The Frug,' with its exquisite interplay of woodwind, horns, and strings over an energetic backbeat driven by the quartet.  In contrast, Brazilian samba rhythms define the breezy 'Sunshine In Her Smile' and the more urgent 'Making Tracks,' the latter featuring a rangy solo flute. There are some delicious down-tempo moments, too, exemplified by 'Sweet Revival,' which begins with delicate harp arpeggios preceding a gorgeously mellow groove.

'Soundtrack From Electric Black' certainly takes the James Taylor Quartet's music to another level. Though the presence of a full orchestra imbues the album with a grandiose feel at times, it's never over-bearing and the symphonic enhancements don't diminish the down-to-earth directness of the band's unique brand of jazz-funk, which is still the sonic core of this album. Their best album yet? Quite possibly. Electrifying!

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 30 November 2018 16:45


COOKIN’ ON 3 BURNERS; Lab Experiments Vol. 2 (Soul Messin’ Records)

Tuesday, 27 November 2018 20:33 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altAussie soul-jazz trio, Cookin' On 3 Burners are possibly best known for their tune 'This Girl'. The Kylie Auldist vocalized cut scaled quite a few soul charts around the world and last year Jake, Ivan and Dan consolidated their status with an interesting long player.... 'Lab Experiments Vol 1'. The set was big on their signature 70s soul-jazz and funk vibe but they did entice Ms Auldist back to he mic for a sweet and lovely vocal 'More Than a Mouthful' while there was a distinct Northern soul flavour on 'Sweet Talker' – big vocal from Emmi. Stella Angelico.

Twelve months hence the Burners have managed to push out another set of Lab Experiments and the new, concise 8 tracker offers much the same menu as Volume 1...that's to say , plenty of Hammond-led instrumentals, spiced with some tasty vocals.

No surprise to learn that Kylie Auldist gets to sing with the boys. Her input comes on the mid-tempo groove that is 'One Of The Ones' - steady and steadfast and perfectly fine... but might take a remix to get chart status.

Other vocals come from Simon Burke (an unremarkable 'Garden Of Freedom'), Fallon Williams (a southern soul flavoured 'Force Of Nature') and Queen Kaiit (a semi rapped, funky 'Warning').

Elsewhere, expect 21st century funk (best typified by 'The Jump Off') with light and shade added by the bluesy 'Sunday Mumma'.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Tuesday, 27 November 2018 20:49


TOWER OF POWER: You Ought To Be Havin’ Fun (SoulMusic Records)

Wednesday, 21 November 2018 12:31 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altTower of Power are a proper soul and funk institution. The Oakland outfit are currently celebrating 50 years in the crazy music biz and their last album – the fulsome 'Soul Side Of Town' ( a #1 Billboard album) was every bit as polished, soulful, funky and rewarding as any of those early classics like 'East Bay Grease' and 'Bump City'. Over their half century existence TOP have had plenty of personnel changes, especially in the vocal department, but marshalled by the twin striker partnership of Emilio Castillo and Stephen "Doc" Kupka, the band have remained true to their core soul and funk values. Though not as complex as tracing TOP's membership, the band's recording history has had its share of twists and turns with the band working for a number of labels. This new 2 CD TOP reissue from SoulMusic Records focuses on the group's tenure with two of those labels – Columbia and Epic.

Tower Of Power were with Columbia between 1976 and 1979 and there they issued three albums – 'Ain't Nothin Stoppin' Us Now', 'We Came To Play' and 'Back On The Streets'. CD 1 of this double pack offers a selection of 19 tracks from those LPs. The second CD contains 16 cuts from the band's 1991-1997 Epic tenure where they cut four albums – 'Monster On A Leash', 'TOP', 'Souled Out' and Rhythm & Business'. Despite the time difference and the use of different producers (Steve Cropper and Richard Evans, for instance, were amongst the producers at Columbia), the overall sound and album format is remarkably consistent... though TOP fans would think that obvious. What you get is a big, brassy, brash soul sound with the musical fare fluctuating between driving funk and sweeter, more melodic material.

There are countless highlights across the 35 tracks and maybe it's an age thing but the sweet soul cuts offer more attraction right now and there's none sweeter than 1976's 'You Ought To Be Havin' Fun' which gives the reissue its overall title. It's one of those great songs that, well, just makes you smile. Little wonder that it was a US Hot 100 hit. Equally gorgeous is the slower 'Am I Fool' – an introspective ballad that, like all TOP slowies, avoids any hint of cloying sentimentality. That clever gambit is maybe summed up in another album winner... 'Bittersweet Soul Music' – exactly what Tower Of Power craft... always have done, still do and, hopefully, will continue to do.

(BB) 4/5


ST. PAUL & THE BROKEN BONES: 'Young Sick Camellia' (Columbia)

Sunday, 18 November 2018 12:47 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                       altDebuting in 2014 with the album 'Half The City' on indie label, Single Lock, this Alabama octet were perceived as bright new flag-bearers of the retro-soul movement: young cohorts to veteran performers such as Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, the James Hunter Six, and Charles Bradley. Indeed, their horn-laden R&B sound, fronted by the effusive vocals and charismatic stage presence of Paul Janeway (the sonic lovechild of Otis Redding and Freddie Mercury, perhaps), owed much to Stax and southern soul. But by the time of their second album, 2016's 'Sea Of Noise,' which saw them move to Columbia, the group had risen out of the soul revivalist ghetto and evolved into a band with a wider stylistic palette that saw them add funk, country, pop and orchestral elements to their songs. Now, with 'Young Sick Camellia,' the band have moved on apace again from their old school R&B roots. The fact that the album has been helmed by Jack Splash - whose credits include working with hip-hop auteur Kendrick Lamar, Latin pop princess Christina Aguilera, and R&B goddess Alicia Keys - shows how far they've come from 'Half The City' four years ago. The Hammond B3 has given way to astral synths and an almost psychedelic  approach to soul.

But that doesn't mean that they're now making music that will alienate or leave their original fans behind. The group still know how to groove but there's greater musical sophistication and lyrically, Paul Janeway is delving into subjects well-beyond R&B's traditional parameters of love and romance. The album's title is a case in point. The camellia is the state flower of Alabama but here it becomes a symbol of what Janeway perceives as a malaise of bigotry and myopia that afflicts his home state. In his view, America - the America now presided over by divisive president, Donald Trump - is infected with a sickness. It's a risky venture targeting your own nation but Janeway doesn't pump out empty political slogans but rather has a more poetic and subtle way of expressing himself. On 'Got It Bad' - a thumping disco-style groove - Janeway targets the hypocrisy of some who claim to be religious but wield Christianity as a weapon. "Gun-shaped Bible and a loaded tongue/Jesus ain't the problem but he started it," he sings over a mirrorball backbeat embellished by punchy horns and Chic-style strings.  

For those who don't want to embrace Janeway's socio-political commentary, the music can be appreciated on its own merits. Highlights are numerous and two of its chief standouts are songs that both ingeniously rely on space metaphors to get their point across: the lush meditative beat ballad, 'NASA,' and the uptempo, 'Apollo.' The latter is particularly alluring, with its killer chorus and hints of Al Green in its musical DNA.

'Mr Invisible' is different again; a psychedelic-like lament with trippy instrumentation and a mesmeric rhythm track. The album's final track, 'Bruised Fruit,' doesn't end the album on a high with a rousing finale but rather concludes matters on a solemn, ruminative note. It's a slow, skeletal ballad - initially just naked voice, piano and drums - but gradually builds in intensity and musical drama and features a powerhouse vocal performance from Janeway. "Blood is what I can't escape, harboured in the DNA," he sings, reflecting on a relationship that is broken but which somehow defines him. "You're in me when I bleed, you're in me when I pray," he continues, describing a symbiotic relationship that could be referring to a romantic entanglement, though given the album's theme, one suspects that it might actually reflect Janeway's ambivalent affiliation with Alabama, the state that bore him. It is, then, a song where Janeway acknowledges that he is inextricably bound to a place that he can no longer relate to or identify with. For him that creates conflict and tension, but for us, the listeners, it results in dramatic and compelling music.

On one level, 'Young Sick Camellia' can be perceived as a critique of redneck America and Trump-ism, but for Paul Janeway it goes deeper than that - it's a personal exploration of his soul and psyche, and coming face-to-face with his own roots. Though naturally, perhaps, Janeway gets all the attention, The Broken Bones are not glorified sidemen and are, in fact, crucial in bringing his musical vision vividly to life. On this new album, their growth as musicians mirrors their front man's personal development and they, together with producer Jack Splash, frame Janeway's impassioned vocals with sympathetic sonic backdrops.

Though Alabama's camellia may be withering on the bough, on this evidence, St. Paul & The Broken Bones are positively blooming. Long may they flourish.

Catch them live at London's Roundhouse on Monday 19th November.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Sunday, 18 November 2018 16:00


FANTASTIC NEGRITO: 'Please Don't Be Dead' (Blackball Universe/Cooking Vinyl)

Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:19 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                         altFrom gun-toting street hustler to Grammy-winning punk-blues avatar, Fantastic Negrito has led a fascinating and eventful life. He was born Xavier Dphrepaulezz into a devoutly religious family with Somalian ancestry in Massachusetts and then from the age of 12, lived in Oakland, California, where he later became a drug-dealing gang banger on the city's mean streets. Music, though, drew him away from a life of crime and inspired by Prince, he started to sing and write songs. He signed a deal with Interscope in 1993 and released the album 'The X Factor' under the name Xavier three years later. But a devastating car accident in 1999 - in which he almost died and was left in a 3-week coma - put paid to his music career. Or so it seemed. Down but not out, in 2013, Xavier returned in the guise of a flamboyant persona called Fantastic Negrito and released his self-titled debut album a year later. He described his unique sound and style as "black roots music for everyone" but it wasn't until after the release of his second album, 'Last Days Of Oakland,' that Negrito began to find a captive audience for his powerful blues-steeped music. The album won a Grammy and since then the 50-year-old performer - renowned for his incendiary live shows - has been considered "hot" property.

Now, we have Fantastic Negrito's latest album called 'Please Don't Be Dead,'  and interestingly, its title - and artwork - refers to the car accident that almost claimed his life 19 years ago. It's not, though, a vain and empty exercise in narcissism but rather about rebirth, redemption, and not going "gentle into that good night." The album's theme is crystallised in the short piano-led ballad, 'Never Give Up,' an uplifting anthem which embodies the singer/songwriter's never-say-die spirit. Elsewhere, though, the album is feisty and even confrontational. "Knock me down, I will keep fighting," declares a combative Negrito on 'Bullshit Anthem,'  which blends sinewy Prince-like funk (circa 1981) with sanctified gospel cadences.

Negrito's years as a street hustler bring a no-nonsense, straight-talking realism to his music and lyrics. A case in point is 'Plastic Hamburgers,' the explosive, riff-driven blues rocker (with shades of early Led Zeppelin in its DNA)  that opens the album. "American pill will wreck 'n' kill," sings Negrito in a searing indictment of his gun-infested motherland (or should that be "muthaland"?) He also delves into the psychology of evil ('Bad Guy Necessity') and examines discrimination ('Transgender Biscuits') via music that's often strident and steeped in the language of the blues. There are some fine reflective pieces, too, like the introspective 'Dark Windows,' a solemn but gleaming ballad, which shows that Negrito possesses sensitivity as well as plenty of badass attitude.

Xavier Dphrepaulezz's miraculous transformation into Fantastic Negrito offers proof that a near-death experience can sometimes lead to a spiritual rebirth as well as a change of outlook and career direction. On a metaphorical level, 'Please Don't Be Dead' is a plea, perhaps, to other people to embrace life and awaken to a new, more-meaningful reality rather than drift aimlessly along in a zombie-like state where mind-numbing TV and shopping malls rule. Vibrant, life-affirming music. Heed its message.

(CW) 4/5  

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 November 2018 12:03


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