MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: 'Ventriloquism' (Naive Believe)

Sunday, 18 March 2018 13:49 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                      altSuch is Meshell Ndegeocello's  ability to shapeshift musically,  that it's difficult to second guess what sonic form she'll inhabit next. But her restless desire to keep evolving and continually reinvent herself as well as dismiss musical boundaries and resist any type of pigeonholing, is what has made her such an interesting and subversive artist in the twenty five years that she has been recording. After mining a deep neo-soul-meets-funk groove with her first few albums for Madonna's Maverick label in the '90s, she eventually blossomed via a succession of eclectic and unpredictable LPs into a singer-songwriter of note who had carved out her own unique, immediately identifiable sound.

Nobody sounds like her and nobody could have put together a disparate collection of material - like she has with this new album, a provocative collection of '80s R&B covers - and unify it by fashioning the material to reflect her own image and sensibility. As she showed on her last but one album, 2012's 'Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone' - where she reinterpreted material associated with the 'High Priestess of Soul' - she is able to deconstruct well-known songs and then put them back together as if she had written them herself. She does this consummately well and is able to make you hear an old song with new ears. The Nina Simone album was a revelation but 'Ventriloquism' - a great title for what is essentially a collection of covers - is even more impressive.

Those who grew up on a diet of '80s soul and R&B (like yours truly) will recognise all eleven tunes on this, her fourth album for the Naive label. Many of the songs - ranging from Al B Sure's seductive groove, 'Nite And Day,' to  Ralph Tresvant's 'Sensitivity,' TLC's 'Waterfalls,' and Sade's 'Smooth Operator' - were big hits at the time, and three of them were written by Jam & Lewis.  One of those that wasn't a hit (it wasn't issued as a single) is 'Sometimes It Snows In April,' a haunting Prince ballad from the late singer's 1986 album, 'Parade.' Meshell's version is even more ethereal and elegiac than Prince's, defined by soft guitar arpeggios and distant, swooning synth noises, which give it a filmic quality. Another highlight is her rendering of The System's 'Don't Disturb This Groove,' which is transformed into a sensuous romantic nocturne. Gorgeous, too, is Tina Turner's 'Private Dancer,' transmogrified into a  slow, mournful, waltz-time ballad with mesmeric, half-whispered vocals. Unrecognisable from the original versions are George Clinton's 'Atomic Dog,' which is given a jaunty, country-funk makeover and the Force MD's slow jam, 'Tender Love,' which is re-imagined as a slice of acoustic folk, complete with plaintive harmonica fills.

Given the familiarity of the material and the fact that it's packed with antique R&B hits means that  'Ventriloquism' could be considered the most overtly commercial album from Meshell Ndegeocello in ages - but then again, given how she dissects the songs, reconstructs and then repurposes them, what she's done is almost subversive. And it's certainly not an empty exercise in summoning up nostalgia. Rather, it's like you are hearing these songs for the first time, but from another universe. And that sums up the genius of Meshell Ndegeocello, a musical enigma and maverick who (thankfully) doesn't play by the music industry rules and continues to plough her own singular furrow. Long may she continue to do so.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Monday, 19 March 2018 11:41


LINDSEY WEBSTER: Love Inside (Shanachie)

Friday, 16 March 2018 16:23 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altSavvy, sophisticated soul folk have been following the career of Lindsey Webster since her subtle breakthrough in 2015 with her 'You Change' album. Then, teaming up with the reliable Shanachie label, her profile has grown to the extent that Billboard named her contemporary jazz artist of the year for two successive years – 2016 and 2017. Indeed her 2016 song 'Fool Me Once' reached the coveted #1 spot on Billboard's Smooth jazz chart – making Lindsey the first vocalist since Sade (back in 2010) to take top spot in what is a primarily instrumental format. And if you're not yet aware of Lindsey's talent, Sade is a good reference point. Many music commentators have compared Lindsey to Ms Adu while others have likened her to the wonderful Dusty Springfield.

Indeed right through this new long player, you'll hear echoes of those genre icons. On 'Bad Grammar', 'Dreams' and 'It's Not You, It's Me' there is a distinct Sade flavouring while on 'Walk Away' and the sadly too short 'Even If He Lied'' it's the world weary, heart-rending timbre of dear old Dusty that comes to mind. My guess is that Lindsey hasn't set out to copy or imitate anyone; it's just the way she expresses herself and is there anything wrong to be compared to such legends anyway?

On any lesser album the tracks we've just listed above would be highlights but there's so much good on this 12 tracker that cherry picking is a redundant exercise. By now anyone with any soul knowledge will be aware of the title track.... 'Love Inside'. The tune heralded the album and was heavily rotated on all the key soul and smooth jazz stations. Little wonder.... it's a gem. Musically, it sits right on the cusp of soul and smooth jazz; the sweet melody underlines the "count your blessings" optimism of the lyric which Lindsey nails as a gentle jazz guitar weaves between her phrasing.

Elsewhere... well, 'Love Before' and 'By My Side' are about as sprightly as things get.... never frantic, though; while 'Opportunity' is sweet and hook laden though I have to say that melodically, in places, it does remind me of India.Airie's 'Video'.... you know that bit "I'm not the average girl from your video". One for the plagiarism lawyers, methinks! Like the Sade and Dusty connections, it's all subconscious (I'm guessing) and it doesn't spoil the overall excellence.

2018 is hardly three months old and we've already had some sparkling, top class albums from the distaff side of the genre... Kathy Kosins, Diane Shaw, Lisa Stansfield to be specific. To that list we can now comfortably add Lindsey Webster's 'Love Inside'. Check our interview section for more info on this album and Lindsey Webster.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 21 March 2018 20:24



Wednesday, 14 March 2018 16:51 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altThough Lisa Stansfield's been around since the 80s, I was surprised to learn that this latest long player, 'Deeper' is only her eighth studio album. Clearly Rochdale's finest prides herself on quality over quantity; for sure, you see 'Deeper' is stuffed with quality Brit soul and classy pop and will sit perfectly in Ms S's small but perfectly formed canon.

Astute followers will know by now that 'Deeper' has been heralded by two singles. Back in January we enjoyed the tight, electro groove that was 'Everything' and more recently there was the radio friendly 'Billionaire'. Wisely, Lisa and her people had 'Billionaire' remixed by modern soul don, Rob Hardt (of Cool Million/Sed Soul) and the result was a gorgeous modern soul groove that proved (again) that Lisa is still at the top of her soul game. The great news for the soul crew is that this album offers plenty more soul treasures – none finer than the title cut. 'Deeper' (the track) is one hell of a tune! It rides in on a bass line that reminds me of Maxwell's 'Ascension Don't Ever Wonder' and develops into four minutes worth of modern soul perfection topped with a fab sax break from Mick Donnelly. This is the single-in-waiting. The faster 'Never Ever' is another soul winner - zipping along with confidence and panache. The big soul ballad is 'Coming Up For Air' but the set's best slow moment comes via the heart-rending 'Hole In My Heart'. You can guess from the title where this one is coming from.

Elsewhere, 'Twisted' is an enjoyable oddity. After a slow start it builds into something that kind of embraces Latino rhythms (hear those castanets!) alongside Northern soul flavours. There's another nod to Lisa's roots on 'Desire'. This is a boomy, bassy dancer that recalls the great days of Cold Cut and Blue Zone while I'm guessing that the cover of Family Stand's 1990 'Ghetto Heaven' is Stansfield's homage to her past and/or influences. Quite different is the funky 'Butterflies'; for sure, it's not JB style funk but it is tough and tight with an authentic horn arrangement from veteran Jerry Hey and a crazy sax solo from Athol Ransome. Counter that with the electro trickery of 'Just Can't Help Myself' and factor in the tunes we've described and you can see that Lisa has delivered one of her most varied albums to date. Varied and, yes, stuffed with quality – not quantity.

LISA STANSFIELD; 'Deeper' is released on earMUSIC on April 6th

(BB) 4/5


MFSB: The Definitive Collection (Robin Songs)

Thursday, 08 March 2018 11:24 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altAll soul collectors know that all the great labels had their own studio band.... Stax, Motown, FAME and more used the same players over and over again giving the music that the labels issued an easily identifiable sound. Gamble and Huff's Philadelphia International label was no different. Right from the start (with their earlier labels like Gamble and Neptune) the dynamic duo knew the value of using the same musicians and working out of Philadelphia, they were spoilt for choice. The City Of Brotherly Love was chock-a-block with top, seasoned session players who'd worked for earlier, influential labels like Cameo-Parkway and Arctic while many of the city's large Italian immigrant population had retained a love of and an ability to play Italian string-driven operatic and orchestral music ... the "sweetener" that Gamble and Huff used consistently to make their records a little different, a little more polished, a little more sophisticated. And the studio players they assembled at Sigma to back the O'Jays, the Three Degrees, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, the Intruders and many more did just that – created a very special sound.

That sound was so special that in 1973 Gamble and Huff decided to release records specifically by their studio orchestra and when a name was needed they opted for MFSB - "Mother, Father, Sister, Brother" or something ruder, depending on whom you believe. Soul buffs will know the names of the key players. People like Thom Bell, Bobby Eli, Norman Harris, Earl Young, Don Renaldo and Vince Montana are the stuff of soul legend; ditto the music they crafted.

Over the years many of MFSB's albums have been reissued but it's hard to remember anything that resembles a definitive retrospective. Et voila – here we have one! Robin Songs have just issued this delightful 2 CD, 32 track collection that pulls together all the big moments from MFSB's history... none bigger than 'TSOP' – the catchy, signature earworm that perfectly sums up the MFSB sound. Elsewhere there's a moody version of 'Backstabbers', the smooth jazz precursor 'Old San Juan', the obligatory cover of Elton John's 'Philadelphia Freedom', the vocalised (one of several) 'Let's Clean Up The Ghetto' and much more.

For those who want to know what's what and who's who, the sleeve notes come courtesy of SJF's redoubtable Charles Waring. They describe the music with the insight it deserves.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 March 2018 11:31


ZZ HILL: That’s It (Kent)

Thursday, 08 March 2018 11:20 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altA few reviews back we explored an Ace/Kent album that spotlighted southern soul man, George Jackson. Now the same label offers an insight into the career of another southern soulster who enjoys the same kind of status as George Jackson. You see, like George, Texas' ZZ Hill is almost anonymous to the mainstream, but just like Jackson, Hill's oeuvre is revered by knowing collectors and they will be delighted with this new 2CD, 49 track collection that rounds up everything he recorded for Modern/Kent between 1964 and 1968.

Born Arzell Hill in 1935, ZZ's first musical forays were in the church but mentored by his brother Matt, he eventually signed a deal with Kent/Modern . There he recorded a slew of singles and one great album, 'A Whole Lot Of Soul'. Neither the singles nor the long player were particularly successful but as the collection proves, lack of success doesn't mean lack of quality. Hill's work at Kent/Modern is right up there with the best of southern soul – a tad bluesier, yes (Hill's roots were in Texas, after all) but still mighty soulful and always authentic.

This collection's first CD offers all of Hill's Kent singles and across the 27 tracks there's so much quality that it's impossible to cherry pick. Sound wise, the music is typically Texas soul blues much in the manner of Bobby Bland, though, oddly maybe, you can also hear traces of Joe Tex. Some of the cuts are a little more polished, a little more uptown- notably 'No More Doggin'', 'Set Your Sights Higher' and the pastiche of Fontella Bass and Bobby McClure's 'Don't Mess Up a Good Thing' that is 'Gimme Gimme'. The gloss on these tracks is probably down to producer Marc Gordon (later owner of Soul City Records) who at that time, as well as working for Kent/Modern, was also representing Motown on the West Coast and it's probable that some of the Motown ways were rubbing off on him even then. All the tracks on CD 1, by the way, are in mono.

The first half of the set's second CD offers Hill's 1967 album 'A Whole Lot Of Soul' – appearing for the first time on CD. The 12 tracks are in stereo and the repertoire consists of Hill's covers of well-known soul hits like 'When Something Is Wrong With My Baby', 'Knock On Wood' and 'Steal Away'. Interestingly there is a Bobby Bland cover – 'You Gonna Make Me Cry'; the most intriguing cut, though, is the take on Bettye Swann' 'Make Me Yours'.

The remaining tracks on CD 2 (some previously unissued) are tracks that Kent/Modern owner Joe Bihari "doctored" after Hill had left his label. In the early 70s, working for his brother's MHR label and Jerry Williams' Mankind, ZZ started to achieve moderate success so, to cash in, the ever-hustling Bihari tried to improve old ZZ Hill material – adding strings and so on – to score hits of his own. Most interesting of these "new" tracks is 'You Won't Hurt No More' – a blatant rip off of Brenda Holloway's 'Every Little Bit Hurts'. It's quite lovely but it was never released – it seems Bihari got cold feet and sensed that the Motown plagiarism lawyers would have had a field day!

ZZ Hill's 'That's It' is out now on Ace/Kent

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 March 2018 11:31


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