David Murray Cuban Ensemble, Plays Nat King Cole En Español (Motema Music)
The backstory here isn’t too complicated, but does require some unpacking. Supposedly inspired by a photograph of Nat King Cole placed prominently inside a Havana recording studio, our most prominent tenor saxophonist chose a typically idiosyncratic yet appropriate method to honor the pop icon – by highlighting two Spanish language recordings made for Capitol few would mistake for Cole’s finest work. But if Cole Espanol and its follow-up were flawed in both the singer’s diction and Armando Romeu’s goopy arrangements, they testified to Cole’s instincts as both generous performer and voracious pop enthusiast. By turning what had been vehicles for Cole’s vocals into a largely instrumental celebration, then, Murray likely means to turn our attentions from that justly celebrated golden voice to the crooner’s equally impressive chops as jazz pianist, gifts still largely unknown to many of his fans. And with Murray’s own interest in Cuban music stemming perhaps equally from his identification as a member of the African diaspora and as a consummate musician, this album no longer seems an “improbable” venture, but a logical step for an adventurous student of North American music in all its permutations. While Murray’s rich tenor lines echo Cole’s phrasing, there’s little of the singer’s gentility on display, even if Flowers For Albert fans may find more in the way of Ben Webster (or Frank Lowe, at least) than they’re used to. And even a string section recorded off-site in Buenos Aires avoids the sickly-sweet – sprightly, fun, and never fussy, it provides welcome color throughout, and on “No Me Platiques” helps carry the entire performance, at times clustering dissonantly as if waiting for the leader to assert the melody. He gamely does so, also tossing off bravura runs and scruffy yells. So while Murray is far from the only voice here (in addition to his peerless sidemen, several performances make room for the raspy vocals of Argentinian legend Daniel Melingo), it’s the leader who dominates nonetheless, whether he’s adding dusky bass clarinet to the tango standout “A Media Luz,” constructing the complex charts that always swing intelligently (check out the opening moments of the just-this-side-of-kitschy “Cachito”), or completely re-imagining the Perry Como-affiliated schmaltz of Jack Keller’s “Aqui Se Habla En Amor”. Technical sophistication wedded to emotional complexity with plenty of room for fun – yeah, that’s what many of us turn to jazz for.
Jimmy Cliff, Sacred Fire EP (Collective Sounds)
Even with his place in history assured thanks to The Harder They Come, Jimmy Cliff has always seemed one of Jamaica’s most tragic also-rans, a status that wasn’t much helped by a 2004 “comeback” album heavy on electronics and guest duets from such compromised individuals as Sting and Annie Lenox. This 5-song EP (6 if you spring for the vinyl) is different. With former Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong producing in a manner that can only be described as lovingly, Cliff basks in the glory of both vintage equipment and pop chestnuts from across the musical spectrum. If the Clash have never sounded more Studio One than they do on this roots-informed “Guns Of Brixton,” Cliff’s take on his producer’s “Ruby Soho” makes that mid-90s cut sound like it was the B-side to Max Romeo’s 1969 “Wet Dream.” Meanwhile, the vinyl bonus cut brandishes a joyful organ riff that might have been lifted wholesale off of Stranger Cole’s “Bangarang”. “World Upside Down,” it’s called, and it goes out on Cliff detailing “ecological calamity / economic instability / what’s wrong with humanity”. Tricky, this kind of pastiche – as if Rick Rubin had coaxed Johnny Cash to sing against slapback echo rather than closely-miked acoustic. Might have been nice, right? So be thankful Armstrong had the vision to go retro. And be thankful Cliff still has the pipes to deliver anthems like Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” all six minutes of it. After all, narratives of visionary apocalypse lend themselves quite well to skanking rhythms.
Gil Scott-Heron / Jamie xx, We’re New Here (XL Recordings)
This modest remix-not-collaboration surfaced one year after Scott-Heron dropped his first new material in sixteen years, and a mere three months before the great man passed on. Thing is, I’m New Here was pretty modest, too, barely thirty minutes of spare electronic backing over which a voice diminished by time and hard living spoke mostly of impending death and no regrets, faint traces of humor still perceptible. So don’t think of this as goopy club settings compromising an autumnal mood. These thirteen tracks work when they do precisely because there was so little to compromise in the first place. Jamie “xx” Smith was smart to highlight a rare laugh line for his opening cut, in which Gil asks a barstool companion if having an ego the size of Texas means big or small. Elsewhere, Smith fleshes out the 2010 material with past Scott-Heron incarnations, finds room for the likes of Gloria Gaynor, Baby Washington, and Rui da Silva, and takes just enough detours into dubstep and sub-bass territory to prove he’s no mere historian. The skittering beats of “The Crutch” and the hip-hop snap of “My Cloud” help boost the producer’s bona fides, but I prefer those softer moments when Smith advances the startling claim that Scott-Heron was a soulman, not a proto-rapper. As evidence, he offers the urbane vocals of “My Cloud,” in which Gil comes on like Bill Withers, murmuring into your ear “We’ve been friends long enough.” Then he leaves us with “I’ll Take Care Of U,” five minutes of bliss that sounds suspiciously like Smith’s steady gig the xx and utilizes very little of his collaborative partner. It’s not a proper send-off. But neither was I’m New Here.
The Black Keys, El Camino (Nonesuch)
While it’s tempting to think the reason this long-running duo from The Class Of Neo-Garage Rock successfully avoids blues clichés (musical clichés, that is – more on that later) has something to do with personal convictions, it might just as likely be attributable to hailing from Akron, which knows the blues firsthand – naming their best album Rubber Factory wasn’t mere exotica, even if they recorded it inside an abandoned tire factory for the acoustics rather than the political statement. Less sprawling than previous palette-broadening efforts, the oft-cited “soul” qualities herein manifest themselves primarily through female backing vocals and mild production flourishes, like the Motown atmospherics that open “Dead And Gone”. But that’s the least blatant reference on an album that plunders 70s glam for its swagger and borrows liberally from such wide-ranging sources as Norman Greenbaum (the fuzz synth line that propels “Gold On The Ceiling”), Tom Petty (the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” cropping up midway through acoustic ballad “Little Black Sub”) and Neu! (“Hell Of A Season” is pure “Hallogallo”). If only this cornucopia of quoted riffs were used for a greater purpose than the sound-alike melodies and strained rhymes Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney settle for. Maybe acolytes have an easier time distinguishing individual songs. But “she was milk and honey / she was filthy money” represents this album’s lyrical bent - romance viewed through the age-old blues-rock prism of wily women keeping studs guessing. I’m pretty sure there’s a decent greatest hits somewhere among the numerous EPs and seven full-lengths this outfit has racked up. I’m also pretty sure it would lean heavily on covers and time out at 40 minutes, tops.
The Internet, Purple Naked Ladies (Odd Future Records)
Sydney Bennett, aka Syd The Kid, is the brains behind The Internet, although her real claim to fame is being both the only female and the only gay member of LA’s buzzworthy Odd Future Crew. As one might expect, her gender and sexual orientation matter, if only because certain fans and cultural spotters point to her existence as helping dispel any rumors said Odd Future Crew traffic in misogyny and homophobia, which is the kind of thing other types of cultural spotters tend to suggest when confronted with songs like “Bitch Suck Dick” or Twitter posts offering hard dicks to prominent lesbians. That’s a mighty weight for any mere sound engineer and DJ to shoulder, let alone one as slight as Syd the Kyd. As such, this dull “hip-hop soul” experiment merely churns smoothly along, sort of how Native Tongues might have come together had it been assembled by committee. When she steers her sound towards the erotic soul of “Cocaine,” she fumbles by letting Left Brain portentously intone “let’s snort”. She entitles an instrumental “Cunt” for no apparent reason (“C*nt,” actually – how gutsy). She drops utterly dumbfuck lyrics on top of the kinda cool “Fastlane” (ie, “now we’re in the fast lane/ so you better not slow me down”). Cultural studies majors may find this a useful secondary text for ongoing research. Anybody simply looking for signs of Odd Future’s artistic legacy should stick with Frank Ocean.
The Head And The Heart, The Head And The Heart (Sub Pop)
Hard-gigging Seattle-based indie folk unit, met at an open mic night, became a neighborhood draw in Ballard, sold self-produced album at concerts, got noticed by Sub Pop, who subsequently reissued their debut to general acclaim. Only what on earth is there to acclaim here? Betraying a weakness for handclaps, ersatz barrelhouse piano figures, and harmonized “ba da da da’s,” I suppose these guys can lay claim to a slightly more authentic layer of scruff than fellow Washingtonians Fleet Foxes. But this is dull and earnest, with lyrics that un-ironically reference the singer’s “marriage bed,” which is just the kind of wrong linguistic choice that betrays their backward-looking philosophy, a philosophy that thinks openly wishing to be “a slave to an age-old trade” means they identify with the working man. Not if that “age-old trade” is defined as “riding around on railcars”. And since both vocalists keen like choirboys, try not to smirk at the tossed-aside references to the supposed hell they’ve raised – “God, I love my vices” is one thing, but “Lord have mercy on my rough and ready ways” is another. Near album’s end, they spend nearly six minutes slogging through a lament entitled “Heaven Go Easy On Me,” as if divine retribution awaits them for not dropping that bottle of Mac & Jack’s into the proper recycling bin.