20 July 2009

AMG review round-up, volume XIII: strictly retro revival resurgence

"it's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present..."
"Little Edie" Bouvier, as quoted in Grey Gardens and sampled by Rufus Wainwright on "Grey Gardens"

seems like nothing's old for long before it's new again; seems like these days there's more interest than ever in what's gone before – though revivalism is hardly new itself; of course, the more time goes by the more past there is to revisit... anyway there's all sorts of interesting ways to think about retro-referencing music (and music is probably the arena where this phenomenon is most pronounced and most complex, music being about fashion as much as it is about art), even if it does start to get old.

here are some recently releasted records i've reviewed which refer overtly, with greater and lesser degrees of directness, to the music of the past, in various genres: first three soul albums (one revivalist, one new-old-schooler, and one reissue), then a decade-spanning comp of ethno-beat-soul; four new-ish takes on the rock of different eras (roughly, the '80s, '70s, late-'60s, and early-'60s) and lastly a retro-electronica album, which sort of brings up a whole new set of issues... (though it's also sort of same-old same-old.)

but, goodies:

Nicole Willis: Keep Reachin' Up review

After a pair of essentially modern-styled R&B outings, the Brooklyn-born, Europe-based vocalist Nicole Willis struck out in a new direction on her third full-length, teaming up with Finnish funk combo the Soul Investigators in 2005 for a hearty take on '60s and '70s stylings which, by accident or design, fit right in with the vintage soul resurgence that was then getting underway. Relative to other diva-led throwback acts such as Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse, Willis and her cohorts come off as especially convincing revivalists (or especially deceptive simulators), despite seeming comparably laid-back about taking an authentically "retro" approach, or at least about sticking to one particular type of soul. Stylistically, they trend toward the more polished, pop-oriented Northern Soul end of things, occasionally using strings in place of horns and generally keeping things up and peppy, on stomping highlights like "If This Ain't Love," "Invisible Man" (which features girl group-styled falsetto backups sung by noted dance producers Maurice Fulton and Jimi Tenor, who's also Willis' husband) and "My Four Leaf Clover," which nods specifically and delightfully to early Motown and to Martha & the Vandellas in particular. Opener "Feeling Free," which boasts the album's most uplifting and irresistible chorus hook, sports a similarly chunky early-'60s backbeat wrapped in a lavish arrangement of strings, bongos, and palm-muted guitar that suggests more of an early-'70s, Philly International vibe, whereas the slightly groovier "A Perfect Kind of Love" lays on the Stax-style horn parts and chicken shack organ. The detours into harder-headed funk ("Holdin' On" and the title track) and smoky balladry ("Blues Downtown" and "No One's Gonna Love You") are somewhat less effective: despite some compelling and atmospheric playing from the Investigators, Willis' voice isn't quite richly textured enough to be as effortlessly authoritative here as it is on the more melodic, poppier material. Still, these tracks are far from serious missteps, and they do add some well-intentioned variety to an album that, on the whole, stands as one of the finer soul full-lengths of the decade.

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens: bio and What Have You Done, My Brother? review

Daptone Records, arguably the epicenter of the 2000s funk/soul resurgence, has launched records by retro-styled revivalists (the Budos Band, the Mighty Imperials), reissues of vintage-era obscurities (Bob & Gene), and even reissues of revivalists (the Daktaris, the Poets of Rhythm), but for a long time the label lacked another act that could compare with its flagship star, Sharon Jones, a bona-fide throwback soul artist with roots in the music's heyday who's still very much musically active today. Enter Naomi Shelton, a commanding and full-throated vocalist whose musical identity stems equally from her churchgoing rural Alabama childhood in the '40s and '50s and her tenure on the New York club scene in the '60s and beyond. Like Jones, hers is an undeniable, inimitable voice, a rich and gritty alto brimming with authority and hard-earned authenticity, but also an unmistakable sense of compassion, grounded by a forthright, soberly pragmatic sensibility. What Have You Done, My Brother?, the first full-length Shelton has cut in her long and varied career, is a gospel record, to be sure -- from the reedy organ notes that open the proceedings to the inspiring lyrical message of uplift and righteous struggle, bolstered by the sturdy and stirring backing harmonies of the Gospel Queens -- but it's a soul record, too, just as obviously, and one that bears many of the hallmarks of Jones' Daptone sides. Along with a number of traditional and classic gospel numbers, most familiarly Sam Cooke's timeless "A Change Is Gonna Come" (which sounds as affecting as ever, and more personally informed than usual, in Shelton's relatively unadorned take), she's blessed here with a handful of top-notch original tunes by Daptone ringleader Bosco Mann (aka Gabriel Roth) which, true to form, are practically impossible to distinguish from the older songs -- although the socially conscious, mock-deferential "Am I Asking Too Much?," which is rather atypically sardonic, does feel particularly like one of Jones' groovy struts. Roth also serves as producer and plays bass, alongside fellow Dap-Kings Tommy Brenneck and Homer Steinweiss, while Jones herself is one of several supplemental background vocalists, in addition to the Queens (two of whom take turns on lead vocals.) Suffice it to say, fans of Jones and/or the label won't be too surprised, and certainly shouldn't be disappointed, by what they hear here, even those who wouldn't typically be inclined to listen to a gospel record. And, thanks perhaps to the understated influence of the band's arranger and musical director Cliff Driver, or to Shelton's unaffected sincerity, or simply to the directness, optimism, and relevance of the music's spiritual message, this set is blissfully free of the occasionally over-earnest schtickiness that can sometimes creep into Daptone's more retro-minded output: this is real, and this is righteous.

Betty Padgett: bio and Betty Padgett review

The 2000s-era soul resurgence has seen a bumper crop of rediscovered and/or rehabilitated "lost" R&B records, gushed-over, too-good-to-be-true reissues of vintage sides that, surprisingly often, have in fact turned out to be that good and that true. Luv N' Haight's re-pressing of this Floridian find from 1975 feels archetypal of these regularly scheduled revelations to an almost unbelievable extent, from the smorgasbord of rare groove styles on offer (sweet Southern soul, groovy proto-disco, Latin-tinged funk) right down to the given name its unheralded titular diva shares with Mmes. Wright, Davis, Swann, LaVette, Harris, and Everett. But believe it, baby: Padgett's pipes are as potent as any of her fellow Bettys (or Bettyes); on the smoother, sweeter side of the spectrum, but soulful to be sure (and uncannily belying her shy 21 years when this was recorded), while the grooves, cut by a crack team of South Florida funk cats, make for grail-worthy gravy. Marquee two-parter "Sugar Daddy," a regionally successful disco single laden with congas, flutes, ear-candy party patter, and some particularly fluffy gold-digging lyrics, is serviceably fresh and funky, if not necessarily Padgett's greatest vocal turn (mostly thanks to its middling melody). The jazzy, sultry, and subtly synth-laced groover "Gypsy of Love" promises a goofy good time as well, but the album's true highlights tend to be those that de-emphasize the disco elements in favor of timeless, backward-looking soul, like the pained but punchy "It Would Be a Shame" and string-laden ballad "Love Me Forever." Best of all is the quartet of cuts that rest, somewhat surprisingly, on an impeccably fluid foundation of Jamaican reggae and rocksteady, over which Padgett croons her romantic pleas and plaints like a Stax/Volt Marcia Aitken, or perhaps one of her U.K. contemporaries in the nascent lovers rock scene. Just a listen to the unrequited schoolgirl love saga of "My Eyes Adore You," with its beautifully self-harmonized chorus, is enough to remind listeners, yet again, that crate-digging dreams really do come true.


Rich Medina & Bobbito: The Connection, Vol. 1: Modern Explorations in Afro-Beat and Afro-Latin review

Rich Medina and Bobbito "Kool Bob Love" Garcia -- among many other distinctions -- are veteran DJs who've been wooing groove-lovers and setting dancefloors ablaze for years; at home (in Philly and N.Y.C., respectively) and worldwide; individually and, since 1997, together, at their long-running "Happy Feet" parties. True to its title, their first joint release finds the pair delving deep into the well of contemporary, groove-based music from around the globe, often cross-pollinated with funk, soul, jazz, house, hip-hop, and more, but always firmly rooted in African and Latin rhythmic traditions. The set is presented as a straight, unmixed compilation rather than a blended DJ affair, with each compiler responsible for one generous 12-cut disc (many of the inclusions stretch out well past the five-minute mark), allowing each of them ample space to flesh out a distinct genre-based approach. Medina's Afro-flavored disc kicks things off with a sturdy Fela-styled groove from the Dutch group AIFF before settling into a relatively smooth and mellow mode for much of its length, focusing on cuts that project an affably relaxed vibe despite plenty of percussive complexity. Things definitely heat up toward the end of the disc, though, with a vintage nugget from Nigeria's Sir Victor Uwaifo slotted next to more recent but retro-inspired horn-heavy funk from the Daktaris and Azuka of Afrika, and a pair of lengthy tracks offering surprisingly different takes on the intersection of Afro-beat and house music. The NuYorican Bobbito's Latin-based disc is decidedly the more varied and modern-feeling of the two, with a wealth of hip-hop and electronica-inflected selections ranging from Rob Swift's cut-up turntablism to the poppy, salsa-tinged R&B of London's Grupo X (on the aptly-named "Sunshine"), the jazzy lounge-house of Big Bang and Louie Vega, and Reel People's funky, syncopated electro-soul. There's also some relatively straight-up funk/soul by the dependable Quantic, and revelatory interpolations of familiar tunes by Michael Jackson (by the Parisian salsa-funk outfit Setenta) and James Brown (Saravah Soul's excellent "Supersossego," which morphs unpredictably from a faithful instrumental cover of "Super Bad" into a full-on samba blow-out.) As with the first disc, the focus here is on currently active artists, with several cuts as recent as 2008 (though they may not all sound like it), but Garcia does dig back into the vaults for a slice of circa 1974 funk-rock from Mexico's Tequila and a beguiling, dusty-sounding vocal turn from Elenita Ruiz con Conjunto that closes the set, fittingly enough, in an entirely unexpected fashion. All told, it's a treasure trove of consistently fine and highly obscure material that should delight crate-digging collectors and casual listeners alike. Perhaps the best part of all: this is only Volume One.


Hot Leg: Red Light Fever review

By the time Justin Hawkins announced his departure from the Darkness in 2006, the band's flamboyant frontman had picked up a cocaine habit which suggested he'd been taking his role as an unapologetic resuscitator of hair metal's hedonistic excess regrettably seriously, even if taking things seriously seemed otherwise utterly foreign to the Darkness' M.O. By 2009, however, Hawkins was out of rehab, several years sober, and ready to rock once more, though by no means was he ready to tone down the glorious extravagance of his self-styled Man-Rock. His new outfit Hot Leg, despite a somewhat feeble name, carried forth his former band's outrageously schticky spirit essentially unaltered; if anything, they're even more over the top -- in musical terms, glammier, or more specifically, Queenier -- than the Darkness were. Stripping back the slightly ponderous tendencies that plagued that band's de facto swan song, One Way Ticket to Hell, the light-hearted Red Light Fever feels like a return to the giddy immediacy of their earlier days, with the emphasis placed squarely on righteously hooky riffage and the marvel of falsetto that is Hawkins' "truth larynx." There are some incandescent choruses here: the multi-tracked sugar rushes of "You Can't Hurt Me Anymore" and "Whichever Way You Wanna Give It" recall the pop confectionery of "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," although they suffer (as does much of the album) from verses that are rather less memorable. First single "Trojan Guitar" is a ridiculously epic romp that makes excellent use of a medieval battlefield narrative (possibly an allegorical telling of Hawkins' personal saga with and since the Darkness), but a couple of the album's better hooks are undercut by lyrics that feel, improbably enough, too frivolous, especially the anti-reality TV rant "Ashamed" and the jokey slag-off "I've Met Jesus" (though its punchline is worth a chuckle.) The peppy, cowbell-laden "Cocktails" seems pretty dire on that score too, with verses that offer little more than a list of mixed drinks, but it's all just an endearingly sophomoric excuse for Hawkins to repeat the syllable "cock" a dozen or so times in the ludicrously irresistible chorus. If that didn't make it queer enough for you, "Gay in the 80s" is a relatively straightforward, if slight, ode to coming out in the decade of excess, though despite some lovely choral vocals it's one of the less musically flamboyant cuts here. Above all, Red Light Fever is simply a blast from start to finish, with even the handful of relatively forgettable tracks managing to offer something of interest, like "Chickens"' preposterous operatic wails and "Kissing in the Wind"'s perfectly pitched harpsichord breakdown. So even if they never quite reach the heights of their predecessors' finest moments, Hot Leg are still a tremendous amount of fun; solid proof that there is light (and certainly lightness) at the end of the Darkness.

Baby Teeth: Hustle Beach review

There's no question that Chicago's Baby Teeth draw heavily and heartily from the classic rock and power pop of the 1970s. It can be trickier to say whether the results constitute jokey pastiche or sincere homage, but that confusion seems entirely appropriate -- and the distinction almost irrelevant -- when you consider that the '70s were an era when playfulness and emotional earnestness coexisted in rock music far more easily than they typically do today. (Take, for instance, the work of the Todd Rundgren, Electric Light Orchestra, and Meat Loaf with Jim Steinman, all of whose influence is readily evident here.) So, when "Big Schools" opens the album with an anthemic rock flourish and a picturesque, writerly evocation of Classic American Collegiate Romance (frat party, freshman year, "...your friend's boyfriend was working the door..."), it feels somehow insincere; a pat, too-perfect mimicry of Springsteen's nostalgia-fueled narratives (or maybe more precisely the second-degree nostalgia of the Hold Steady -- in the songwriting blog project which generated much of this album's material, front Tooth Abraham Levitan acknowledged the song's debt to their "Stuck Between Stations.") But as its story arc develops into a sort of stock mini-epic, with the characters graduating to the dissatisfactions of suburban parenthood, the song grows genuinely affecting, largely due to how fully it embraces the caricature, with all the right musical touches down to the cowbell and a Roy Bittan-esque piano break. Some of the other stylistic excursions here -- the blue-eyed R&B ballad "I Hope She Won't Let Me," the proggy, hard-rocking title track, and the bizarro heavy blooze of "Snake Eyes" -- aren't quite as convincing, in part because Levitan's usually quite serviceable and personable voice tends to sound a bit silly and even grating when he pushes it too hard. But as long as he sticks with more straightforward upbeat pop/rock, which is most of the time, he's got the hooks and the witty charm to make it work -- both for goofs like the high school stalker ode "Shrine" ("every day for lunch I eat what you eat/for science fair I studied the way you sleep") and more sincere numbers like the closing piano lament "It's Hard to Find a Friend" -- and most of the album is a pure, understated joy, striking just the right balance of braininess, frivolity, and heart.

Snake and Jet's Amazing Bullit Band: bio and X-Ray Spirit review

Snake and Jet's Amazing Bullit Band's X-Ray Spirit crashes open with the spiky organs and tinny drums of "Ten Cities Beyond," one of the most infectious bursts of retro garage pop to emerge from Scandinavia since the Caesars' "Jerk It Out." It's a good deal more hectic and reckless than that Swedish iPod staple (which is recalled more directly in the organ lick of "Doom City") but at least as much fun, even if the vocals are completely incoherent and largely incidental and the "period" vibe is thrown off by some disorienting synth squelches. It's clear from the outset that this Danish duo has little interest in faithfully recapturing the particulars of the Nuggets-style rock & roll and surf music that they equally clearly idolize, displaying a striking lack of concern for a conventional pop notion like "song structure" or "arrangement" or even "melody" (though they've also got the chops to offer up a barrage of hooks when they feel like it). Which is, for the most part, tremendously refreshing. The prevailing mood is one of spirited sloppiness, coupled with a bombastic goofiness that vaguely recalls early Beck, and for the most part it works. They're more or less reshuffling the same handful of elements throughout the record (even reusing their own lyrics on a couple of songs), but enough variety and spontaneity are here to keep things unpredictable. And at just over half an hour, there's hardly time for X-Ray Spirit to wear out its welcome, even if the few numbers that veer slightly toward standard indie punk can get a bit grating, especially vocally. They may not be traditionalists in the typical sense, but when they're on, Snake and Jet manage to reinstate a lot of the wildness and weirdness that made rock & roll so great in the first place.

The Tremolo Beer Gut: Nous Sommes The Tremolo Beer Gut, Qui Le Fuck Êtes-Vous? review

The Tremolo Beer Gut lay it down thick and filthy on their awesomely named third long-player, and first in eight years, a solid half-hour of straight-ahead spy-tinged surf rock. Though these Danes (and one Swede -- Per Sunding of power pop greats Eggstone) clearly have a keen and stylistically relevant sense of humor when it comes to song titles and visual design, their musical approach is refreshingly no-nonsense, hardly reliant on the kind of kitschiness you might expect from a group whose output is so firmly rooted in a sound that's over 50 years old. Which isn't to say that this record isn't a tremendous amount of fun, merely that it has an impressive amount of substance to back up its oh-so-crucial style. The Beer Gut are as accomplished as performers as they are as composers (and particularly melodists, being Scandinavian and all), stretching out with some impressively intricate arrangements which complement the obligatory clean-toned, lavishly reverbed guitars with organs, vibes, pedal steel, and more. And every so often they do see fit to throw in a vocal carrying-on and even a punchline or two, as with the animal noises and maniacal laughter of "Zoo Bizzare" and the sadistic countdown of "9 Times the Pain." If you enjoy surf music and have any interest in hearing a contemporary (but scarcely modernized) take on the genre, these guys are well worth getting to know; and you won't need to know Danish -- or even French.


Kikumoto Allstars: bio and House Music review

Stylistic revivalism in electronic dance music can be a tricky and somewhat nebulous concept. For music that's so emphatically about the immediate present moment, electronica has always had a strong sense of its own history; on the other hand, it tends to place so much emphasis on forward progression (even if the nuances of the actual musical development are frequently imperceptible to the uninitiated) that there's little time or tolerance for overt backwards-gazing. Eventually though, some amount of nostalgia-driven retreading and rediscovery was probably inevitable; as it happened, the mid-2000s -- several decades and numerous clearly distinct musical phases removed from the early days of the music's development -- saw a widespread resurgence of interest in the earliest strains of late-'70s and early-'80s electronic disco. Chronologically speaking, the logical next step would be a full-on retro-revival of mid- to late-'80s Chicago house, and that's exactly what Kikumoto Allstars (aka Australian producer Cam Farrar) has in mind with the unambiguously titled House Music. Perhaps the most striking thing about the album is the specificity of its homage: Farrar identifies not only which of the genre's pioneering producers influenced which specific cuts on his album, but in some cases which particular tracks provided inspiration. Classic house devotees should enjoy playing spot-the-influence here: "Still Can't Stop the House" cribs from the similarly titled Thompson & Lenoir cut, while "Bending Time" was inspired by a certain Virgo/Marshall Jefferson track and "DCO," with its incessant, monolithic synth hook, is reminiscent of Larry Heard's work as Mr. Fingers. Anyone without an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, on the other hand, would be hard-pressed to distinguish these from "genuine" '80s-vintage house cuts, so thorough is Farrar's re-creation of the era's specific style. It certainly helps that he used the right tools for the job, employing a dream collection of Roland analog machines (the TR-909, TR-808, TR-707, SH-101, JX-8P, TB-303, and Juno synths, for those keeping score) and, on many tracks, appropriately deadpan and sly male and female vocals. Such detailed focus on authenticity and accuracy could conceivably result in a prosaic, pointless rehash, but thankfully that's far from the case here. Showcasing an impressive array of moods and approaches, from the hard-driving acid tracks "I'll Make You Jack" and "Jack the House" to moodier instrumentals like "Sagittarius" and the gorgeous, scintillating "Last Train to Chi-Town," House Music is both a loving testament to a bygone era and a breezily enjoyable demonstration of how vital that era's music still remains, suggesting that maybe dance music sensibilities haven't changed that much after all.

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