Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 30)


Himanshu, Nehru Jackets     (Greedhead free download)

Of course this joint is too long – it’s a mixtape, unedited sprawl comes with the territory. And since one complaint lodged against Das Racist’s non-free Relax was that with commercial viability came a reigning in of risk-taking (not true, but anyway), this solo effort by that outfit’s prominent voice should placate any followers seeking loopier vistas. Those hoping to avoid inessential moments could simply take my advice and program away tracks 4, 12, 14, 21, 23 and 24, which cuts out funny yet minor comic PSA’s, a brief “coca-cola freestyle,” and a Childish Gambino bum-rush you won’t miss. Minus those lesser tracks, what remains is a hip-hop album bouncing along on blunt-soaked beats peppered with Punjabi flow and lyrics demanding concentrated parsing. Not that enjoying this album requires diagramming sentences - Heems enjoys the finer things in life, and thematic interests dominate accordingly. Like food - regarding burgers, he’s “got some cheese on that bitch,” wants “burritos ‘till I die,” is “cut like a deep dish,” feasts on “summertime mangoes,” and forces in the false rhyme of Cracker Jacks / Apple Jacks. Likes women, too, or as he spells it, “Womyn,” a non-sexist update of the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” that rides the goofy charm of prime Biz Markie (“they like to watch shows / some of them don’t, they like to read prose”). And for those heretics still claiming Heems and crew traffic in ‘comedy rap’ and nothing more, set them up with the brief “Juveniles Detained At Guantanamo Bay” or album highlight “NYC Cops.” The latter is four minutes of outrage propelled by Heems’ hoarse voice, a fact-checked anti-police screed that names names, to such a detailed degree it makes “Fuck Tha Police” and “Cop Killer” sound like writing workshop revenge fantasies. Cartoonish? You only wish. 

Calvin KeysShawn-Neeq     (Tompkins Square)

Originally released in 1971 on the short-lived Black Jazz label, bouncing in and out of print ever since, and re-introduced this month on 180-gram vinyl by Tompkins Square, the debut offering by Omaha native Keys was also his last recording before signing on as Ray Charles’ touring guitarist. Later longtime gigs with Ahmad Jamal followed, as did resettlement in the Bay Area, where Keys plays to this day, now approaching 70 years of age. Recorded at the height of fusion, this session avoids many of the flaws of that era, possibly due to the fact that these five tracks are more soul-jazz than Bitches Brew  – funky backbeats yes, distorto keyboards yes, but also avant-skronk bass clarinet and Keys’ non-psychedelic electric guitar, which consistently favors single line runs and clean groove instead of wah-wah pedals or acid-etched snarls. That is, this is soul-jazz with a particular bite and snap. On the album’s second half, the funk gets toned down in favor of straight jazz swing, although this soul man seems thankfully determined to grace each and every note he plays with the r&b he loves.  


Schoolboy Q, Habits And Contradictions     (Top Dawg)

This guy’s my kind of pot enthusiast, outspoken in his partaking of herb, yet aware of political movements and realities extending beyond local medical marijuana initiatives. Not that he delves into matters of policy much here, or even touches on the same thematic material as fellow Black Hippy crewmember Kendrick Lamar – pussy and weed eclipse most concerns, and he’s proud to note both that “fuckin’ is my favorite word” and that his pad boasts a “tub fulla bitches”. Fun as all that is, Schoolboy’s samples are drawn from a wider realm of experience, with folk rocker Lissie (“Hands On The Wheel,” sharing space with A$AP Rocky) , indie trio Menomena (solid single “There He Go”), and trip-hop pioneers Portishead (“Raymond 1969”) all contributing key moments. And Q himself is capable of effortlessly shifting his vocal delivery from track to track, drawling all wack on the clinical and how-to “Oxy Music” while slow-rolling on the G-Funk of “Grooveline”. Still not exactly sure why he promises in “Sexting” to “get real nasty and lick your pearl,” since that’s not really all that nasty. And sure wish he hadn’t made a tossed-aside “fag” part of the chorus in “Gangsta In Designer”. Seems more chill than that, and certainly smarter.   

The J.B.’s & Fred Wesley, The Lost Album      (Hip-O Select) 

Not “lost,” just never released, which isn’t quite the same thing. And while James Brown sidemen like Bobby Byrd helmed classic solo outings, Wesley the trombonist and musical director always made his mark within the confines of Brown’s band.  Lone genius theories have helped eclipse Wesley’s contributions in shaping the language of soul, funk, and hip-hop – a language Brown himself might never have explored to the same extent were it not for Wesley turning riffs into arrangements and delegating solo space within a band that expertly mixed improvisation with time-keeping duties. But while Wesley therefore deserves far more credit than he gets for the rhythmic revolutions wrought by The Godfather Of Soul, it’s instructive to note that the horn man’s main gig after leaving Brown’s employ wasn’t his brief stint with Parliament-Funkadelic but a seat in the Count Basie Orchestra amid L.A. session work. Like Ray Charles, then, Wesley was of the jazz world, and periodically returned there to satiate his own appetites. But like Charles, his jazz gifts will not be what the world remembers him for. These 1971 sessions, then, are a pleasant mix of tightly arranged charts, current soft pop and r&b hits, a few James Brown-related hits, and mild crossover appeal. The funk cuts won’t swing hard enough to interest non-completists, while the non-funk cuts won’t impress the jazz faithful, even with solid support from Joe Farrell and the Brecker Brothers. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” gets treated with respect, Bill Withers’ “Use Me” is played straight, and it sounds like the lady backup singers on a hokey “Back Stabbers” are crooning “better watch your back, all you niggas” during the song’s conclusion. Not funk, not jazz, just instrumental music, for better and worse.   


Chairlift, Something      (Columbia / Young Turks) 

Call me prejudiced, but when a band bio notes they first came together for the express purpose of creating music for haunted houses, my expectations dip noticeably. And when that same bio goes on to claim the band’s current iteration sprang forth as a result of their work “transcending its original purpose,” I start to wonder about the limits of incorporeality. Album closer “Grown Up Blues” is endearing enough, if only because it references an unavoidable road marker on the path to maturity. But Caroline Polachek never makes me believe the explicit threat posed during the opening moments – “All of the bones of your body / are in way too few pieces for me” might be more believable if her Nico imitation wasn’t so half-hearted. And while this may be stretching the limits of their devotion to old-fashioned kitsch, “Turning” seems like nothing more than an un-ironic gloss on Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”. Come to think of it, the “retro-futurism” on display here helps exemplify why that term is both an oxymoron and stupid. A subculture in love with outdated technology is one that has decided it’s easier to mock what has already come and gone than break a sweat embracing the new. And if Filippo Marinetti were still around, he’d hopefully note that yoking your hopes exclusively to technology of any kind, futuristic or retro, almost always results in shitty art. Although maybe he wouldn’t. Which only solidifies my objections.

Najee, The Smooth Side Of Soul     (Shanachie)

Confronting one’s own elitist tendencies is a good thing, so acknowledging the existence of this affable saxophonist seemed a good step towards coming to grips with a “jazz” market in which Marcus Strickland and, lord knows, Anthony Braxton mean squat. Najee has sold more records than those two visionaries combined, probably in a single year, all while pursuing a musical style even admirers describe as a less adventurous Grover Washington, Jr. My everyman tendencies will certainly allow as to how music consumers might be wise to prefer the snap bass and Phil Perry vocals of this album to Braxton’s tuba symphonies and decade-long commitment to Ghost Trance composition. And who knows, maybe Najee stretches out a bit in concert. But agreeing in principle to a flute-driven groove called “You Tube” is one thing, actively enjoying it another. So while it’s worth noting such music fills a void created by a form that at times seems committed to refusing entry to the uninitiated, it’s also worth noting such music deserves to be despised. Like Thomas Kinkaid canvases or Tom Clancy novels, it’s evidence of the mendacity of populism.