Quantic & Alice Russell With The Combo Barbaro, Look Around The Corner (Tru Thoughts)
My expectations were not high for a “Latin soul” meeting between a Worcestershire-born DJ/producer and a Suffolk-raised white singer. And the opening title track still seems fussily precious, a simulacrum of busy ‘60s jetset pop that goes nowhere. But even allowing for that minor misstep and occasional bouts of wordiness, this project manages to create and inhabit a world in which classic soul meets 70s Latin strut, bossa nova, boogaloo, even cumbia complete with accordion and clarinet - backward-glancing r&b with definite Latin undertones. Credit Will Holland, aka Quantic, for the cosmopolitan decision to mess respectfully with genre after soaking up the sounds of his adopted country of Colombia and city of Cali, foregoing samples in favor of local hotshots Combo Barbaro. Credit Alice Russell for downplaying her inner Chaka Khan and channelling Dusty Springfield and Stevie Wonder (see “Magdalena” for pure Motown Summer of ’67). Credit the musicianship of those local hotshots, especially pianist Alfredito Linares and conga master Freddy Colorado. And be thankful that for all the loping backbeats and attention to period detail that inform this artificial recreation, hooks and songcraft were not ignored. From sly glances at “Louie Louie” throughout “Una Tarde En Mariquita” to tossed off worthy B-sides like “Boogaloo 33,” a palpable sense of fun runs through what might have easily been drily academic or esoteric. It’s enough to make one think our UK siblings really do boast a superior ear for soul.
Dawn Richard, Armor On (Our Dawn Entertainment)
A 36 minute “EP” from a former member of soul conglomerate Danity Kane, supposedly serving as introduction to an upcoming conceptual trilogy based around an alter ego dubbed NEON. Yup, just like Nicki Minaj, just not nearly as funny. Only - unlike Nicki Minaj - this vocalist folds club anthems into riskier fare with zero strain or artifice. So what helps make this album such a delight is the way it builds successfully off of an intermittent 2011 mixtape while avoiding the sort of wack roleplaying portended by the NEON trilogy. I take Richard at her word when she expresses a desire to avoid the linear narratives of r&b, and even if these lyrics never wander far beyond heartbreak and communication laments, her confidence and intelligence transmit clearly, as when she bleeds black and grey, won’t be any boy’s droid, or tells her love object if he was religion she’d be the faith. And musically, she and sympathetic producer Druski couldn’t be less linear. Spooky r&b (“Change,” “Black Lipstick”) trades off with ebullient pop (“Bombs,” “Heaven”) trades off with pulsing house (“Faith”) trades off with the uncategorizable likes of “Scripture,” a slow-building groove with descending strings confidently relegated to the far distance. Such consistent attention to sonic detail is a revelation - rare enough in any pop format of your choice. Let’s hope the feedback on this opening salvo is positive enough to ensure we get to hear that trilogy, even if the narrative conceit may well sink the venture. She’s definitely got some things to say.
The Best Of Perception & Today Records (BBE)
For a record label barely boasting a five year legacy, this late 60s/early 70s Manhattan joint delivered a fair summation of both the contemporary zeitgeist and what would become New York disco and hip-hop. A bass-heavy mix of jazz, funk, soul, and dance, the 38 tracks featured on this budget-priced 2-disc compilation stagger under the cultural weight of appropriated samples - a not-bad Tyrone Washington track alone (“Submission”) would go on to power cuts by Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Quasimoto, A Tribe Called Quest, and Showbiz and AG. So one can understand the giddy delight with which a crate digger like compiler DJ Spinna might attack this back catalogue, even if that collector’s mentality leads to indulging a too-stiff Hammond organ stab at “I Want You Back” or seven selections by such lower tier soul outfits as The Eight Minutes or Black Ivory, even while three forward-looking grooves by the relatively eminent Fatback Band leave one drooling for more. Still, Spinna’s even hand makes room for both flute-driven Joe Thomas r&b and early efforts from future Sister Sledge / Teddy Riley / Keith Sweat / Salt-N-Pepa producer Patrick Adams, and includes worthy curios like former teen idol Bobby Rydell on a serious blue-eyed soul tip or Wanda Robinson’s girl-group / proto-hip-hop “soul jazz poetry”. Plus, pros Astrud Gilberto and Dizzy Gillespie feel the funk.
Half String, Maps For Sleep 1991-1994 (Captured Tracks)
Aesthetes like me can easily get sucked into the pretty world of gauzy guitars and murmuring nice boys that was shoegaze during its minor zenith, although this collection of EPs and rarities from a fairly obscure mid-90s Phoenix, AZ outfit offers sonic templates more than actual songs, while barely transcending the lead vocalist’s wavering attitude towards pitch. The lengthy “Oval” and the rather lovely “Hue” are obvious high points for a band that never betrayed any inclination towards stylistic maturity - these folks ended much as they began. But even if such minor variations on a theme bring to mind the detached whimsy of prime Cocteau Twins more than any blistering guitar unit, there’s enough cavernous drums and heavily-channelled six string buzz to please the genre spotters among us.
Struck By Lightening, True Predation (Translation Loss)
Hardcore punk and metal have been having a haeted conversation since at least Black Flag’s Sabbath period, and for good reason - they’re ideological bedfellows, and I do mean fellows. At least this Ohio group favors the pithy side of metal, bringing things to a close after 33 loud minutes and jettisoning extended keyboard intros in favor of guitar-bass-drums thrash. But vocalist Gregory Lahm can’t see beyond the close-miked screams that have long kept metal outsiders at bay. And raging as it does vaguely against the “Sickening Reality” of our “Slavocracy,” the lyric sheet rarely edges past the kind of sophomore nihilism that has long kept metaphysical metalheads out of the academy. Since your sense of the sublime might be finer-tuned than Lahm and Co’s, you might prefer the phrase “fuck you forever” to signify as an erotic promise rather than a dead-end threat. And since you undoubtedly take yourself less seriously than Lahm and Co., you might counter such easy challenges as “We Are All Just Rotting Corpses” by laughing.
Trembling Bells / Bonnie “Prince” Billy, The Marble Downs (Honest Jon’s)
Prince Billy’s urban coterie of followers fancy their hero a salt-of-the-earth purveyor of homespun truths, even if vocally I’ve always found him more Eddy Arnold than Dock Boggs, an Everyman on the wrong side of the personality spectrum if ever there was one. Pairing his limited emotional range with Lavinia Blackwell’s studied purity might have resulted in a satiric yet warm gloss on country & western duets - an arch Conway Twitty sidling up to a plastic Kitty Wells. But this unmitigated disaster barely accomplishes that feeble goal, suffocating under a folk-prog that layers harpsichord, trumpet, sackbut, and gemshorn over such timeless laments as “you’ve condemned me to life” and “your brutality was mechanical”. Perhaps an ironist like Stephin Merritt could pull off an opening line like “as I rode out on Valentine’s day / all down to Beachy Head / my liver felt like a suicide note / to Johnnie Walker Red”. Not our creaky prince.