Company Freak, Le Disco Social (Opus Label)
If Jason King’s career in academia (NYU/Tisch), broadcasting (NPR), and arts journalism (Village Voice, forthcoming Freddie Mercury bio) doesn’t immediately suggest he’s the right man to head a retro-disco “international dance music collective,” well, rest assured - he is the right man. Every track here is dancefloor-ready, thanks to vintage synths, Steve Rodriguez’s slap/pop bass, succinct horn charts, and David S. Ware alumnus Guillermo E. Brown swinging through the studio. But the secret lies not so much within King’s grooves as in how the maestro defers to his vocalists, which include Rihanna counter-melodist Shayna Steele and Broadway maven Vivian Reed, who peerlessly deadpans “give me sex all day and night” on floorbanger “Sexaholic”. Unlike Daft Punk, King’s worshipful respect is aimed neither towards the machines nor the Eurozone but at such standout gay black males as fashionista extraordinaire André Leon Talley (“fabulous and free”) and Queen of Disco Sylvester (a synth-encrusted pound through 1982 Hi-NRG hit “Do Ya Wanna Funk”). And the collective refreshingly sees nothing wrong with dropping a little agitprop into the club, as witness King’s expert limning of anti-democracy forces on “Crackdown”: “Crush the opposition / Squash the 99% / Good for them / But not for me”. Which is to say this is also smart stuff. Just think how dumb a track called “Istanbul Disco” could be. Now dig the way Turgut Özüfler opens the number on solo kanun. Only then do King and co. wisely bring the stupid: “Get into the groove / I like the way you move”.
Jon Langford & Skull Orchard, Here Be Monsters (De Goot Recordings)
While the Waco Brothers and Pine Valley Cosmonauts assume fairly well-defined roles within the hierarchy of Jon Langford side projects (country and covers, respectfully), Skull Orchard as both standalone 1998 album and loose musical confederation was once cheekily summarized by the man himself as a repository for stuff deemed “too Welsh”. There’s little evidence of the Llanwern steelworks this time out - as suggested by the cartographic puzzle enshrined on the cover, Langford’s examining peripheral knowledge and the edges of culture both known and unknown. But he’s also returned to the political specificity that helped distinguish Skull Orchard proper from the more enigmatic polity of the Mekons, meaning the multinational-skewering “What Did You Do In The War” shifts the onus off individual soldiers even as “Drone Operator” drops the blame right back onto an average joe who uses his fire-at-will security clearance to bolster smarmy pick-up lines (“I’m like a god with a thunderbolt”), all to the strains of a guitar lick swiped from Coltrane/Cannonball’s “All Blues” vamp. Elsewhere, the usual Langford concerns appear: surveillance states (“Call this number if you hear rumors”), artistic struggles (“Aim too high / And live in obscurity”), uneasy camaraderie (“Go down to the pub and drink some rum / And learn how other people get things done”). And then our unreliable narrator takes time on a joyfully quasi-autobiographical “Lil’ Ray Of Light” to consider the relative fame of his lofty rock and roll deeds: “All the puff pieces and picks of the week / Never got it right”.
Schoolboy Q, Oxymoron (Top Dawg / Interscope)
Following a year in which black pop scored too few appearances within Billboard’s upper reaches, it’s satisfactory that this hardcore weirdo debuted at number one, although the hip-hop victory seems pyrrhic given Schoolboy’s refusal to grant any female character not his daughter an ounce of humanity. Really, even for us artistic apologists, this is dire stuff - “bitch, she gon' work on that corner / I don't care if that ho got pneumonia”; “don’t trust no ho / I might sock the bitch”; “fuck your bitch in front of your children”; and, for the romantically-inclined, “put my semen all down her throat”. As that last line suggests, Q’s quatrains could use a little tightening. Still, this has its moments, like a positively bouncing “Man Of The Year” or the oddball Gary Burton sample that drives “Blind Treats”. Meanwhile, the cold delineation of Crips-induced petty street crime on “Hoover Street” suggests he can craft compact tales when it matters. But we Black Hippy enthusiasts await Kendrick’s autumn offering.