West coast hip-hop, quirky alt-rock, and a bit of angelic folk have been keeping unlikely company in my rotation of late. And while these artists have nothing in common, they’re worthy listens if you’re looking for some select new tunes to close out the year.
Lateef the Truthspeaker prepares to release his first solo effort, Firewire (CD, Quannum Projects QP93), on November 8, 2011. A prolific collaborator in the West Coast underground hip-hop scene, Lateef co-founded the artists’ collective and independent record label Quannum Projects (which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2012), as well as several successful Oakland/Bay-area rap groups including Latyrx and the Mighty Underdogs. His lyrical prowess, combined with a willingness to tackle subjects of societal injustice, has earned him a reputation as one of the best rappers today. Born Lateef K. Daumont in Oakland, CA, in 1974, he was raised by his parents, who were both members of the Black Panther movement. Firewire is his first album released independently rather than as part of a collaborative project, but that doesn’t mean it’s a one-man show. He invites old and new friends to contribute, giving the album a beefy roll call that includes DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, Chief Xcel, Dan the Automator, and Headnodic among others. Most of the album’s tracks feature different producers, lending a unique sound and flavor to each song. The opener, "Let’s Get Up" (produced by Chief Xcel) is an energetic embarkation and gives the album good thrust right out of the gate. "Hardships" examines how politics and inequity affect the poor, and it laments the current US economic hardships of the many due to the gross exploitation of the system perpetrated by the few. It’s a potentially perfect anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The songs range widely from pop and jungle-mystique to R&B and island jams, but throughout the album Lateef’s rhymes address intelligent themes and are delivered with unparalleled alacrity and skill. Firewire celebrates the past accomplishments of Lateef the Truthspeaker and his collaborative nature, and it ushers in his next era of quality music making under his solo guise -- this is truly hip-hop to be reckoned with.
September is here, and my soundtrack for celebrating the cooler days ahead has lately consisted of the music of two legends, each of whom has a knack for continuing to produce incredible music; the impressively strong sophomore release of an up-and-coming West Coast band whose sound is a throwback to the 1960s; and a wild-card Norwegian fiddle band who liven things up with a light-hearted, heavily skilled vengeance.
Levon Helm’s Dirt Farmer (2008) won him a Grammy, and that same year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his involvement with The Band, and was named "Artist of the Year" by the Americana Music Association. The following year, hot on the heels of so much recent acclaim, he recorded a concert that was finally released this spring as Ramble at the Ryman (CD, Levon Helm Records), at Ryman Auditorium, the legendary venue in Nashville, Tennessee, that was the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. His core band that night was an impressive 12-piece crew that included his talented daughter, Amy Helm, of the folk band Ollabelle, but the guest list is what makes this disc a must-have: Little Sammy Davis, John Hiatt, Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, and Sheryl Crow. The 15 tracks span Helm’s career, with such favorites as "Rag Mama Rag" and "The Weight," from his days with The Band, to material from Dirt Farmer, to classic covers of songs by Chuck Berry and the Carter Family. The recording is warm and spontaneous, and the genuine respect for Helm is palpable, both from the adoring audience and from the heavyweight musicians joining him onstage. Helm’s distinctive voice still has the high-pitched, lonesome quality it did in the 1960s, but age and excellence have since further permeated his singing, like spirits preserved in some ancient oak barrel. Many magical moments were captured during this performance, and while Helm sings about how "You Don’t Know the Shape I’m In," if you ask me, he’s still in top form.
Summer is here, and my soundtrack is as varied as the temperature, which dips (to my relief) and rises (with a vengeance) by night and day. To get you through the dog days in style, I recommend a little jazz, a little rock, and some sweet Southern blues.
Drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington’s new album, The Mosaic Project (CD, Concord Jazz, released July 19), brings together some of the finest women in contemporary jazz for a potent 14-song set of artistic collaboration. The cross-cultural, cross-generational mix features established legends like Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, and Shelia E. alongside such up-and-coming players as bassist Esperanza Spalding and vocalist Gretchen Parlato, and showcases some of the greatest musicians in modern jazz. Classics and standards are given renewed vigor -- like the very first track, "Transformation," a jazzed-up rearrangement of Nona Hendryx’s song, which Hendryx performs with soulful flair. Carrington is the skilled chauffeur behind the wheel of this album: her drumming, supersharp and tasteful, steers the momentum and vibe throughout. Poetry, politics, and love comprise the themes of the tracks with vocals, which are sung equally impressively with sultry smoothness (Wilson’s "Simply Beautiful") or octave-bending improvisation (Parlato on "Crayola"). The balanced recording showcases the subtle nuances of each musician’s playing; the resulting mosaic is a rich, multifaceted masterpiece.
All right, are you restless for something new? My suggestions for this round of "Select Sounds" should help you usher in the warmer months and keep you on your toes (dancing with delight, of course). Alright You Restless (CD, KNF 1105), the debut album from Portland’s AgesandAges, brings a welcome exuberance to the current alternative scene with their proliferation of jubilant vocal harmonies, background hand-clapping, and all-around musical gaiety. A thorough listen to this disc and you’ll feel the clouds lift; the dreary days are gone and it’s high time for a sing-along! The opener "No Nostalgia" sets the bar high for the fun that follows. "Tap on Your Windowpane" is delivered with almost theatrical extravagance, but it’s all in feel-good fun. The seven members of AgesandAges collaborate like a fine-tuned commune in which each individual brings his or her best to the mix for the good of the group. Acoustic guitar, sweeping strings, and tinkling piano are matched with a gleeful vocal troupe fit to rival the heartiest of revival choirs. But that’s not to suggest that the whole album is sickeningly sunny -- some moodier numbers are scattered throughout, but in general this band has no time for negativity. As for the naysayers, as one song asserts, "they’re just angry and wrong" and "[we’re] writing our own story." Sing it loud and sing it proud, happy people!
Perhaps this all seems a little too "Kumbaya" for you? For those more inclined to the dark and dimensional, take a stab at Transmalinnia by Lumerians (CD, KFR 1104), where amplified effects, tripped-out riffs, and a spiraling galaxy of kaleidoscopic rock will surely soothe your twisted mind. Both AgesandAges and Lumerians are represented by the Brooklyn-based label Knitting Factory Records, but that’s where their similarities end. Journeying through the underbelly of experimental trance, Lumerians attempt to open some doors of the mind. Quite melodious beneath the beastly, heavy facade, this is, according to the band’s biography "the noise of the billions of switches in your brain shutting off and on in perfect harmony." The disc was recorded in a former church in Oakland, California, an appropriate acoustic setting for the echoing resonance of the band’s hollow vocals, fused-out guitars, and bass-heavy percussion. This band is heavy enough to appease the old-school rock’n’rollers (there’s a trace of Black Sabbath and definitely early Rolling Stones appeal), and while they identify their sound as trance-like, it’s not the never-ending epic space jam some may be familiar with. These songs all come in under the six-minute mark, and they pack a wallop. If you enjoy experimental, original, sensory-pleasing sounds, Transmalinnia is well worth the trip.
If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you probably know that my musical tastes aren’t easily categorized. I try to stay abreast of popular artists to keep culturally current, but I’m usually unimpressed with mainstream music and I find the "alternative" classification a farce. It’s the underground, unknown, oft-overlooked releases from small, independent labels or self-issued artists that excite me most. This month I’ve found four such gems, and I urge you to have a listen. While you may not read about them in Rolling Stone or hear them on a major radio station, these bands play with a passion and exuberance that comes with the territory of being brilliant, unimpeded, under-the-radar artists. I for one revel in such rawness.
I’m still undecided as to whether Geoff Berner’s Victory Party or Chopteeth’s Live disc is more frenetic, as both are dizzying in their energy and delivery. Victory Party (CD, MRD-132) gives klezmer a real kick in the pants. The Vancouver-based Berner is an accordion player with a punk-rock heart, and his backing band is a misfit mix of two New Yorkers on bass and clarinet, a female pair of classically trained violinists, and a percussionist and pianist. The songs are witty, cynical, and brash, taking aim at religious authority, politicians, pimps, and hipsters. There’s a haunting old-world sound at the root of their music, but it all comes crashing gladly into the here and now thanks to Berner’s satirical singing and the swirling soundscapes imagined by his band mates. I’m ready to join the victory party, comrades, and I’ve officially added punk-klezmer to my list of adored genres.