MARION MEADOWS; Soul City (Shanachie)

Wednesday, 04 April 2018 19:22 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altSax man Marion Meadows has been in the business longer than even he'd care to remember and in that time he's played with and supported many of the biggest names in smooth soul and jazz lite and for this, his latest album, some of those "names" have pitched in to help Marion deliver what is without doubt his most soulful set to date. The intention to create an album – 'Soul City' - built on soul grooves is announced from the start with the ten tracker's title track. 'Soul City' (the track) is a solid, soulful beater that features punchy horn work from Joey Somerville and classic smooth jazz guitar courtesy of Norman Brown. There's more of the same on 'You' which is driven along by Will Gaines' insistent bass and intermittent vocals.

Speaking of which, for an album with a saxophonist's name on the marquee, there are plenty of vocal cuts and with people like Maysa, Will Downing and Peabo Bryson taking to the mic for Meadows it's hard to know where to start. So let's stick with that ordering. Ms Maysa Leak fronts a Latino-flavoured 'Dreamin''. In truth Meadows' use of the soprano sax and guest Peter White's acoustic guitar take the tune dangerously near the middle of the road, but anything fronted by Maysa could never be MOR! Will Downing fronts 'Samba De Playa' and again it's a lighter moment but the (ad-libbed?) vocal/sax interplay is a delight. More substantial is the cover of Cyndi Lauper's 'Time After Time' on which maestro Peabo Bryson shows his pedigree and class ... how sad that we rarely hear him these days.

Elsewhere, Dana Lauren is a convincing voice on 'No Wind No Rain' while the Latrese Bush-vocalised 'Merry Go Round' will transport you back to the R&B grooves of the 90s. This is the unheralded album highlight and adds weight to the album's overall titling..... 'Soul City' indeed!

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 April 2018 19:29


GIZELLE SMITH: Ruthless Day (Jalepeno)

Monday, 02 April 2018 15:19 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altGizelle Smith is a Manchester song bird with credible soul DNA... her father was long-time guitarist with the 4 Tops. Gizelle cut her own teeth in the biz fronting the Mighty Mocambos. The inevitable "musical differences" led to a split from the band but after 2 solo singles Ms Smith faded off the musical radar. That was something like eight years ago – much of that time Gizelle spent caring for an ailing mother and dealing with her own depression, brought on, she says, by her fear that her career had ended. So, enter producer Steffen 'Def Stef' Wagner with whom Gizelle had worked with the Mocambos; he suggested that the best therapy was a proper musical comeback... and here we have it ... the 11 track long player that is 'Ruthless Day'.

The album is named for a tune that faces depression and related mental issues head on. Sonically 'Ruthless Day' ( the track) is a lazy, jazzy meander with expressive punchy horns helping hammer the message home that no one really knows when or if depression will affect them. It's a heavy piece echoed later down the track listing by '12'.

Happily the set is not all heavily didactic. Indeed 'S.T.A.Y'' is a one this year's finest up-tempo Brit soul moments. It's a kind of hybrid of Northern soul and the sort of stuff Paul Weller did with the Style Council... you might remember it as a single from last year. The track is a duet with Eric Boss and Eric is also featured on the cut that has already gained huge favour.... the chinking, smouldering, R&B grove that is 'Hero'... a good little tune, sort of a William Bell/Judy Clay thing for the 21st century.

Amongst the other highlights is a gentle, sweet ballad 'Love Song'. The premise here is "everyone loves a song about love" and if you do, you'll love this one.

Find out more about Gizelle Smith and 'Ruthless Day' by visiting our interview archive.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Monday, 02 April 2018 15:25


ROBIN McKELLE: Melodic Canvas (Doxie/Membran)

Monday, 26 March 2018 15:21 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

alt2018 is only three short months long and already we've been treated to some fabulous music from the distaff side of the soul scene.... I mean Kathy Kosins' 'Uncovered Soul', Diane Shaw's 'Second Chance', Lisa Stansfield's 'Deeper' and Lindsey Webster's 'Love Inside'. There's enough there to satisfy each and every soul glutton but now to add to the sumptuousness of that banquet songstress Robin McKelle is all set to release this brand new collection.

The soul world first got to know and love Ms McKelle back in 2013 via her still relevant 'Soul Flower' album. The set boasted the evergreen 'Fairytale Ending' (picked up by Expansion as one of THE tunes of that year) and the lovely 'Love's Work' – a duet which helped introduce a relatively unknown Gregory Porter to a wider audience. Since then Robin's consolidated her position as a major leaguer with the album's 'Heart Of Memphis' and 'Looking Glass'.

This new long player, 'Melodic Canvas', sees Robin make a subtle change of musical direction – just as she did in 2013 with 'Soul Flower'. Before that Ms McK had released three albums –all in the jazz idiom and for 'Melodic Canvas' she revisits those jazzier roots. She says that after 'Looking Glass' (her 2016 album) she worked a lot with jazz musicians on the European circuit (Robin is a major name in France in particular) and decided that the time was right to reconnect with jazz and she focused on crafting new songs that would allow her that extra degree of freedom of expression that jazz brings.

And of those songs, there's none finer than 'Lyla'. This is a stark yet beautifully sympathetic look at the difficulties facing young people in the flim/flam, superficial world of social media and digital messaging; it's about dreaming; it's about the passion of reality and  a whole lot more.... if it doesn't move you, nothing will.

'Simple Man' is also set to become one of the best tunes of 2018. This one is about the difficulties and prejudices that face immigrants every day and though from that description it might sound heavy; it isn't... it's light and lithe with a hint of optimism; a delight.

Elsewhere, well the most interesting track, I guess, is 'Il Est Mort Le Soleil'. Yep, that's right a French song.... Robin, as we said is "big in France" and this, her first recording in French, is her thank you to her loyal French fans. It's a melancholic meander that befits the title with more beautiful piano from Shedrick Mitchell. Interestingly the song is a French original. It was introduced to US jazz audiences when Ray Charles recorded an English version; Robin offers an English version too.

Other covers include a take on the spiritual 'Swing Low' (Robin's mother sang gospel) and a look at Allen Toussaint's 'Yes We Can' with some funky sax from Chris Potter. So, yes –'Melodic Canvas' is ostensibly a jazz album but be sure the soul is never far away. Whatever, it will be remembered as one of 2018's best.

Find out more about Robin McKelle and 'Melodic Canvas' by visiting our interview archive.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Monday, 26 March 2018 15:32


MF ROBOTS: Music For Robots (Membran Music)

Thursday, 22 March 2018 18:28 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altSoul fans who may have been on Mars for a year or so probably won't have heard of new band MF Robots. Every other soul head down here on Planet Earth, though, will know plenty about them because since January 2017, they've peppered us with four fab singles (alongside tasty remixes), played live to enthusiastic audiences and enjoyed a high media profile.

By now everyone, we're sure, knows that MF Robots are duo – ex Brand New Heavy, Jan Kincaid and sometime Heavy/sometime solo performer/sometime top sessioneer, Dawn Joseph. They quit the comfortable BNH format in 2015 to strike out on their own to create their own brand of "fun" soul music.... music that has energy and positivity; music that works against the negativity that so many face in the everyday grind; music that is a far cry from the generic, formulaic, "safe" music that seems the contemporary norm; music for people – not music for robots. Hence the duo's ironic moniker!

MF Robot's first four singles ticked all the boxes above. 'The Night Is Calling' got the ball rolling and the tune quickly became a turntable hit with commentators drawing comparison to Jacko's 'Don't Stop Till You Get Enough'. 'Come On With The Good Thing', 'Believe In Love' and 'Show Me Love' kept the momentum going. The seven minutes of 'Believe In Love' was particularly well-received – a gorgeous, rolling Wonder-esque groove that Ms Joseph delivers with an impassioned Gospel-reared vocal.

Those singles still shine on the 14 track album but there are plenty more good time goodies. 'Whatcha Sayin'' opens proceedings and though the theme is leaving and saying goodbye, like the rest of the LP, it's hugely optimistic. 'Woo' is, I'm guessing, Jan and Dawn's homage to where it all began... the 60s. This is a proper energized, solid stomper topped with a gritty Junior Walker inspired sax solo. 'Scary Monsters' is another highlight and despite its title it's another big "up" moment with a delicious melody. Even the album's mellower moments ('Love To Last' and 'The Greatest (Me And You)' (Jan gets to sing on this one, by the way) keep well away from the dreary and the melancholy and dovetail beautifully with the long player's abiding positivity, optimism and humanity... 'Music For Robots' is definitely NOT music for robots!

Learn more about the band and the album via our MF Robots Q&A in out interview section.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 March 2018 18:36


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


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