Social Distancing Spins – Days 15-17

By Joel Francis

The weekend weather was way too nice to be inside playing records. Here’s what I listened to when I wasn’t enjoying nature.

Fucked Up – Dose Your Dreams (2018) Toronto’s finest sextet have always been incredible musicians, but sometimes their subtlety and talent gets lost behind frontman Damian Abraham’s blowtorch of a voice. Here, on their fifth album, Abraham pulls back a little and the rest of the band flexes their muscles. I guess the story on Dose Your Dreams is a continuation of their 2011 masterpiece David Comes to Life. I have listened to David Comes to Life countless times and have only and elementary understanding of its story. The narrative on Dose Your Dreams is lost on me. So forget about that. Check out the rare mashup of hardcore punk and jazz saxophone at the end of “Raise Your Voice Joyce” (dig the synthesizer on the track, too). The title track is straight-up indie rock, while “Two I’s Closed” sounds like it could be the Dirty Projectors. If this sounds like the band leaving punk and throwing everything at the wall, fear not. The songs are still here, just not in the way you might expect.

Dose Your Dreams is the sound of Fucked Up spreading their wings. It will be interesting to see where they go from here.

Joe Callicot – Ain’t A Gonna Lie to You (2003) Don’t feel bad if you aren’t familiar with Mississippi Joe Callicot – I wasn’t either. Cruising the liner notes and the web, I found out that the dozen songs here were recorded in 1967, two years before his death. I could recite a few other facts but all you really need to know is that Callicot is an acoustic blues picker in the vein of fellow Mississippian John Hurt. Callicot’s voice isn’t as molasses-smooth as Hurt’s, but if you like the relaxed style of one, you’ll enjoy the other. These times are anxious enough. Put this on and unwind.

Blondie – Eat to the Beat (1979) In her autobiography, Debbie Harry describes Blondie as a nonstop circus of recording, tours and musicians. In the six year (and six album) blur between playing shows at CBGB and headlining arenas before breaking up, Harry has a point. Still, it would be nice if she slowed down to let fans savor the journey a little bit more. Blondie’s fourth album opens with the fantastic “Dreaming,” still a concert staple.  We also get the new wave dance classic “Atomic” and cinematic “Union City Blue.” Eat to the Beat is the only Blondie album I own, but every time I play it I’m reminded I need to seek out a couple more.

Billie Holiday – Lady in Satin (1958) As the final album released during Billie Holiday’s brief life, it’s hard not to listen to this album and not think about her tragic story and play the what-if game. Her ragged voice here is another constant reminder of her hard life. As an inspired artist, Holiday is able to use her ragged state to her advantage. The raw tension she infuses into every performance adds another dimension to songs like “Glad to Be Unhappy” and “You’ve Changed.” I also thought about this article and how racists in power conspired to make Holiday’s life even more difficult. I know it sounds fantastic, but just check out the reporting and get back to me. Rest in peace, Lady Day.

Stevie Wonder – Music of My Mind (1972) Stevie Wonder’s incredible run of classic albums usually begins with Talking Book, but the people who start there are missing the two great records that came before that landmark. Music of My Mind came out just six months before Book and lays the groundwork for all of the latter’s achievements. The synthesizers and clavinets that came to define Wonder’s sound are trotted out for the first time here. Music of My Mind is also the first album where Wonder plays most of the instruments himself. (Sayonara Funk Brothers.) The first side starts strong with the upbeat “Love Having You Around.” “Superwoman” is a reworking of a song from Wonder’s previous album. Its great in both forms. “I Love Every Little Thing About You” would fit fine on a playlist of Wonder love songs, right between “All I Do” and “As.” The second side is good as solid as well. Consider this a warm-up for Talking Book and jump in. It’s all there – almost.

Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers (2015) The first time I saw Justin Townes Earle in concert, he was part of his dad Steve Earle’s road crew. He came onstage (barefoot) at the end of the night to add extra guitar to “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding.” Unfortunately, the father had to fire his son for excessive drug use before the tour was over. Keep in mind Steve Earle actually served time in the early ‘90s for heroin, cocaine and weapons possession, so outdrugging him is a pretty neat trick.

This bit of biography also frames the sadness that saturates the characters on Absent Fathers. None of these ten songs are about the perfect nuclear family, but Justin Earle inherited his dad’s knack for songwriting and inhabits these characters so well it’s hard not to be moved.

Bobo Yeye – Belle Epoque in Upper Volta (compilation) I am convinced – but willing to hear otherwise – that the roots of all music either goes back to Gregorian monks chanting in Europe or African drumming and singing. While both forms have their appeal, I’ll take the dirty African funk found here any day. Loud drums, horns, fuzzy guitars, soulful vocals, primitive recording. Yeah, this hits the sweet spot. Accompanying the three albums in this Numero collection is a hardcover book of photography and essays about the music. Feast your eyes and your ears.

Social Distancing Spins, Day 2

By Joel Francis

Welcome to another installment of spelunking in my record collection while the world … well, who knows what’s happening out there. Let’s just stick to the music.

A.K. Salim – Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy (1965) I knew nothing about this album that wasn’t on its packaging when I bought it. I don’t know much more now. But this much is certain: If you want lots of African percussion with blasts of free jazz swooping in and out, this is the place to be. It’s not for every day listening, but at the right time this always does the trick.

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018) Illmatic is such a great album that this edition marks the third time I’ve purchased it. After owning the original CD and album, I passed on the 20th anniversary edition and rolled my eyes when I heard an orchestral live version was coming out. Then I heard a track and knew I was going to have to buy this again. Hearing these performances with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the album to another level. It’s almost like watching The Godfather in a 1972 theater, then viewing it in IMAX. The jazz organ underpinning the original “Memory Lane” becomes a swirling concerto complemented by the DJ Green Lantern’s scratches. Earlier, Nas shouts out his dad’s original cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” There’s amateur footage on Youtube of Kendrick Lamar doing a similar performance with the NSO. Cross your fingers this someday gets official release.

McCoy Tyner – McCoy Tyner plays Ellington (1965) This is essentially an album by the celebrated John Coltrane quartet without the legendary leader. Without their leader’s sheets of sound, everyone else gets more room to shine. Tyner was usually the person keeping Coltrane’s songs from falling apart – think about his insistent piano line in “My Favorite Things” while Coltrane scrapes the stratosphere. Finally out front and on his own, Tyner showcases and ability to pay tribute to a genre pioneer in Ellington while applying the some of the touches he showed with the futurist saxophonist. We lost a giant when McCoy Tyner died earlier this month.

The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019) The Raconteurs have always been my least-favorite Jack White project, however their by-the-numbers approach made for a refreshing listen after White’s previous release, the bizarre solo album Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger arrived more than a decade after the Racontuers’ previous release. While I didn’t really miss them, it is nice to hear White doing some straight-up rocking without all the cutesy tricks and gimmicks.

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) Here’s a question to pull out when the party gets dull (or maybe when you want it to end): Who had a better 1970s, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye? At first glance, it looks like Wonder in a landslide. He won all the Album of the Year Grammys and graduated from opening for the Rolling Stones to recording with Ella Fitzgerald. A second look reveals that Gaye’s decade was every bit as incredible, even if he didn’t win as many trophies. Of course What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are the twin pillars, but I Want You and Trouble Man are very, very good, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows. Then there’s Here My Dear, Gaye’s final album of the decade and a bitter kiss-off to his ex-wife (and label boss Barry Gordy’s sister) Anna Gordy.

Gaye knew going into the recording sessions that Anna Gordy would receive all royalties from the album’s release, as per the terms of the divorce. Undaunted, Gaye recorded the longest album of his career and used that time to dissect the relationship, peel open Gordy’s heart and spray lemon juice on the wounds. Here, My Dear isn’t only a bitter album, though. Gaye slides between soul, gospel, funk and jazz as he bares his soul and examines the wreckage. At the time, it seemed few wanted to go on Gaye’s deeply personal journey. The album didn’t sell well initially, but eventually even Gordy came around to appreciating Here, My Dear.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975) The first time I saw Roy Ayers in concert I didn’t get it at all. I was expecting a jazz vibes player in the tradition of Lionel Hampton or Bobby Hutcherson. Instead, I got what I thought was a smooth jazz crooner going on about sunshine and searching. The second time, I got it. If Louis Jordan is the link between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, then Ayers is the cog that connects Milt Jackson with Tupac.

Tom Verlaine – Words from the Front (1982) I think I spotted this at a yard sale for a song a picked it up on a whim. While I like Television, this is the only album I own from the Verlaine catalog. I always enjoy this album while it’s playing, but it leaves my mind almost immediately after it’s done. Sorry, Tom.

Various Artists – The Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (compilation) I got this album in a bundle when Luaka Bop celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dismiss this collection as a mere toss-in at your own peril. You can hear everything from the roots of Celia Cruz and the samba to songs like “Son de los Diablos” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Afro-Peruvian music originated with the slaves brought over from Africa and forced to settle in Peru. There’s no trace of this horrific history on the 15 hip-shaking cuts here, but it does explain why some of the music sounds like a flamenco band got kidnapped by an aggressive drum circle.

The Dead Girls – Out of Earshot (2010) The Dead Girls were Kansas City band who weren’t afraid to proclaim their power pop influences. This is their second release and as far as I know the only one that made it only vinyl. You can hear a lot of Big Star, the Replacements and Thin Lizzy on this release and while the album plays more like a tribute act than saying something on its own, it’s still a very fine listen.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016) Paul Simon started taking his time between albums after Graceland took off, which is to say more than 35 years ago. Appropriately, Stranger to Stranger sounds like it has been crafted by a patient perfectionist. Simon spent an entire 40-minute podcast breaking down how he built “Werewolf,” the opening track, around the rhythms – but not guitars – of Flamenco music. Other tracks employ the experimental instruments developed by Harry Partch or the laptop sampling of Clap! Clap! “Cool Papa Bell” marries the rhythms and mood of Graceland with the profanity of The Capeman. It’s cerebral stuff to be sure, but also infinitely hummable and pleasurable.

Joe Strummer – 001 (compilation) The 2018 collection 001 is both an overview of Joe Strummer’s career opportunities outside of The Clash and a treasure of unreleased material from his archives. The ten-year jump from his pre-Clash band The 101ers to “Love Kills” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack is jarring, but other than that the collection flows quite smoothly until its unfortunate, premature ending.

Kudos to the Strummer estate for making this set affordable, instead of a trophy piece that only the super-rich or ultra-dedicated can acquire.

U2 – October (1981) The Irish quartet’s sophomore album is easily the group’s most overlooked release. It doesn’t have the promise of their defiant debut, the hit singles on War or the Brian Eno cache of The Unforgettable Fire. All bets for October’s reappraisal were off once The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby took off.

October’s status may seem harsh in this context, but it’s pretty fair. October is by no means a difficult listen, but it also doesn’t the chops to muscle its way into the conversation. That said, it is still nice to see “Gloria” and “October,” the album’s two best songs, creeping back into setlists for the first time since the ‘80s.

Review: Snoop Dogg with Hearts of Darkness

 (Above: Hearts of Darkness are one of the biggest bands in Kansas City and a tough act to follow.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

As a live entertainment, hip hop has a bad rap (sorry). The genre’s main criticism – no one’s actually playing instruments – becomes especially acute onstage. While great MCs can deliver a stirring performance backed only by a DJ, the two-turntables-and-a-microphone set-up is the hip hop equivalent of going unplugged. The safety nets are removed and the MC’s skills (or lack thereof) are on full display.

Although he has brought a live band the past several times he’s come to Kansas City, Snoop Dogg decided to forgo live instrumentation for his performance Tuesday night at Crossroads KC. Backed by a DJ, trio of dancers, two hype men and three gentlemen whose job it seemed was to hang out onstage, Snoop delivered lethargic readings of his most celebrated hits.

Ironically, Snoop undermined his set by making fans wait more than an hour by listening to a playlist from his catalog. The rap stars belated appearance seemed almost superfluous in context. After listening to pre-recorded versions of his music for so long, having authentic vocals over more pre-recorded tracks didn’t seem that special anymore.

Stage problems also hampered the evening. During the first song, “I Wanna Rock,” the lighting rig gradually started lowering in front of the stage. Unfazed, Snoop and his ensemble continued to perform, nearly obscured. When it happened a second time, however, Snoop stopped the show and addressed the stage manager.

“Why does this (stuff) always happen when Snoop Dogg come on?” he asked.

A spate of hits, including “P.I.M.P.” and “Gin and Juice” got the crowd dancing, but the performance seemed like high-spectacle karaoke or an infomercial with a great chorus. With his DJ doing nothing more than cuing backing tracks and shouting over the songs, Snoop would have been better served dumping the entourage and hiring a live rhythm section to breathe some life into the numbers. Although the crowd responded enthusiastically, the result was nothing that couldn’t be easily found at any of the city’s best hip hop dance clubs.

Opening act Hearts of Darkness didn’t do Snoop any favors. The 70-minute set by the local Afro-beat ensemble may have carried on too long for casual fans, but the interplay between the group’s large horn section and several percussionists kept the crowd dancing despite the withering heat. A cover of Outkast’s “Spottieottiedopaliscious” blended well with the 15-piece band’s original material.

A half hour into Snoop’s set – and more than three hours after Hearts of Darkness took the stage – I succumbed to the weather and the hour and headed for home. The decision may sniff of Old Man Syndrome, but it turned out to be the right call: Snoop himself called it a night less than 30 minutes later.

The high point of the Doggfather’s set was watching the teenagers outside the venue, dance and party on dumpsters across the street so they could see over the fence and watch the rap celebrity. The group was having so much fun they even got a shout-out from the stage. But it’s hard to feel shortchanged when you haven’t paid anything in the first place.

Keep reading:
Review: Snoop Dogg with Method Man and Redman
A Black Friday blowout
Review: Lupe Fiasco 

The Budos Band breaks loose

(Above: It will sound a lot like this at the Record Bar tonight when the Budos Band make their Kansas City debut. The show starts at 10 p.m. and tickets are $10.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The covers of the three albums released by the ten-piece instrumental ensemble the Budos Band depict a volcano, scorpion and cobra. In other words, objects that are fascinating, even mesmerizing, from afar, but deadly serious up close. Like those totems, the Budos Band’s music can be appreciated, but rarely trifled with.

It is fitting, then, that the ensemble came together at the turn of the century during the Afro-beat revival lead by the New York-based combo Antibalas. Although inspired by – and sharing musicians with – Antibalas, the Budos Band developed a distinct voice.

“After a year or so of playing Afro-beat we refined our sound, brought in funk and soul influences and tightened things up,” said Jared Tankel, baritone saxophone player in the Budos Band. “That Afro-beat influence is still there, but our sound has progressed in different ways.”

While the band’s 2005 self-titled debut was a jumping off point from Afro-Beat to soul, Tankel said their second album – “Budos Band II,” released in 2007 – shows the emergence of Ethiopian jazz influences. That growth continues on this summer’s “Budos Band III.” The album’s darker and heavier undertones hint at the band’s rock and metal influences.

“It’s not explicit, but I think the undercurrent of that influence is there. It might influence our arrangements or approach,” Tankel said. “It’s still heavy funk and soul, but there is a darker influence.”

Although the textures and arrangements vary, Budos Band songs come together in a pretty straightforward process. Guitarist Tom Brenneck or bass player Dan Foder come in with a rhythm bed, or Tankel and trumpet player Andrew Greene develop a melodic horn line.

“Tom and Dan are in lockstep communication at a very high level,” Tankel said. “Whether they are coming up with something or building off it, a lot of ideas come from those guys.”

After the quartet refines the idea, it goes into rehearsal, where drummer Brian Profilio listens to the parts, suggests transitions and helps develop an arrangement. The song is then presented to the other half of the band – the percussion section.

“They really know how to keep in the pocket of the song,” Tankel said. “They’ve been playing together for so long they can really fall in together and give it the texture that makes it a Budos Band song.”

Just don’t expect that process to include a vocalist any time soon.

“That’s something a lot of people ask, but I feel we’re big enough with 10 guys (in the band),” Tankel said. “I feel this third album is our truest voice of what we have going on right now. I’m not sure a vocalist would fit. We’re having too much fun right now visiting all these exciting places musically on our own.”

Like every other album released on the Daptone label, all of the Budos Band’s output was recorded at the label’s House of Soul studio/headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. and produced by Gabriel Roth, aka Bosco Mann, leader of the Dap-Kings. As the band behind Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” and Daptone flagship artist Sharon Jones, the Dap-Kings have become a hot commodity.

“There is some competition between us and the Dap-Tones, but what we each do is different enough that the competition is somewhat limited,” Tankel said. “They’re on the path to stardom. We kind of enjoy being the scrappy little brother, still playing smaller size clubs and bars.”

The true competitive spirit lies in the band’s roots with Antibalas. The groups’ shared musicians over the years have lead to a healthy level of one-upmanship.

“At this point I don’t know if there are any shared musicians simply because both bands have become busy enough guys have had to decide,” Tankel said. “We’ll definitely hear something great Antibalas or the Dap-Kings come up with and want do it even better.”

Keep reading:

Bettye LaVette – “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook”

Bring yo booty to the Bottleneck

Review Roundup – Rakim, Dodos, Naomi Shelton, Blakroc and Daptone Gold

Open wide for Mouth