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.

On the Streets of Philadelphia

(Above: Billy Paul’s 1972 smash “Me and Mrs. Jones” is a quintessential slice of Philly soul.)

All Photos by Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There’s no shortage of history to be discovered and embraced in the City of Brotherly Love. Sadly, the many of Philadelphia’s musical landmarks have not been preserved as well as those associated with the Founding Fathers. Here is a photo essay from my brief trip to the city.

When Billie Holiday’s mother discovered she was pregnant in 1915, her parents exiled the unwed mother-to-be from their Baltimore home. Holiday’s mother settled in Philadelphia and gave birth in a housing development near what is now the theater district off Broad Street. The family returned to Baltimore shortly after Holiday was born.
The original building long destroyed, this marker is the only sign of Holiday’s neighborhood connection.
In 1952, John Coltrane used his GI Bill funds to purchase this three story brick house on 33rd Street. Coltrane’s house was on the right side of the building, now marked with a white door. The house looked to be in horrible shape, but no worse than the surrounding neighborhood. Several inches of trash lined the curb inside the street, broken windows and doors marked nearly every residence on the block. Located across the street from Fairmount Park, this was a rough part of town, even in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
A small red appendix on the street sign across the road is the only marker of John Coltrane’s former home in the area. The jazz giant obviously deserves better, but his old neighborhood has greater needs than gentrification.
This sculpture, located near Penn’s Landing, bears no obvious resemblance to any well-known saxophone players, but I thought it was fun.
With no signage or even address on the building, it’s very difficult to locate Sigma Sound Studios. Fortunately, someone was going into the building I suspected might have been home to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Sound of Phildelphia in the 1970s. David Bowie also recorded “Young Americans” behind these smokey windows.
Blessed with excellent timing, the employee I spotted entering the building graciously let me inside. Because they were being renovated, I couldn’t view the actual studios, but here’s the lobby of Sigma Sound Studios.
The Simgma lobby was decorated with awards from the golden age of Philly Soul. This platinum album celebrates Teddy Pendergrass’ 1978 album “Life is a Song Worth Singing.” Look for an exclusive interview with Sigma’s owner Durell Bottoms this fall in The Daily Record.

iPod shuffles expectations

(The iPod has come a long way since its introduction in Oct., 2001. What has commercial radio done over that period?)

By Joel Francis

The Daily Record’s two-week experiment ended yesterday. For the past two weeks, I’ve been listening to myiPod on all-song shuffle, dedicated to penetrating 10 percent of my 12,226-tune pocket library. The journey was not only a blast, but it’s also been very revelatory. Songs sound different when they arrive unannounced and stripped of all context.

At first blush, the Futureheads sound a lot like the Jam, and “Mystery Title” from Robert Plant’s “Pictures At Eleven” doesn’t sound that different from what Zeppelin were going for on “In Through the Out Door.” To these ears, Mavis Staples’ 2008 album “Hope: Live at the Hideout” paled in comparison with its studio counterpart “Down In Mississippi,” and Staples’ energetic stop at the Folly Theater on that tour. But “The Hideout”‘s “Freedom Highway” blew me away when it popped up.

The Nine Inch Nails track “Zero-Sum” sounded like something Peter Gabriel would have placed on “Security.” The shuffle rescuedthe magnificient “I’m A Lady” from its burial deep in the second half of Santogold’s album. Heck, even a Ghostface Killah’s comedy sketch managed to evoke a chuckle when it popped up between Dinosaur Jr and Billie Holiday.

Not to sound too much like a fuddy-duddy, but there are a lot of aspects of the old music paradigm that I miss. Record Store Day is a great new tradition, but it can’t compete with the rush and anticipation of New Release Tuesdays. I also miss the days when radio would actually turn me on to good music and artists. None my or my friends’ automobiles in high school and college had CD players, so we relied on the radio for entertainment. It wasn’t perfect – Kansas City still had way too much classic rock clogging the airways – but when you haven’t yet heard “Frankenstein” a million times, it didn’t seem so bad. We tried to sing the “woo-woos” all the way through “Sympathy for the Devil” (impossible) and memorize the lyrics to “American Pie” and “Like A Rolling Stone.” (Check and check. Also, sadly, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”)

I didn’t need to know anything about the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to notice that radio started to suck that year. Eventually, though, we graduated and got better cars. I made sure mine had a CD player and turned my back completely on commercial radio. I have yet to find a compelling reason to go back. And while my iPod only reveals what I put into it, it’s nice to know there are still hundreds of treasures waiting to be revealed. Now if only I could figure out how to be the ninth caller and win that T-shirt.

15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years (part one)

(Above: Brad Mehldau performs an arrangement based on Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For A Film).”

By Joel Francis

Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the first of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.

Roy Hargrove

Over the past 20 years, Roy Hargrove’s trumpet has proven to be one of the most versatile instruments ever. He’s equally at home conjuring Cuba on his own or summoning the spirit of African rebellion with rapper Common. Although Hargrove has yet found a way to reconcile his split personalities, he has built a strong catalog. In the Roy Hargrove Quintet, Hargrove works the more traditional mold forged by Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Brown. The RH Factor is the less-focused urban playground where Hargrove’s funky side comes out. Albums to start with: Habana, Earfood.

Brad Mehldau

Pianist Brad Mehldau cut his teeth working with saxophonists Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter before striking out on his own. His lengthy concert arrangements often leave no stone unturned. Although his classical approach to playing is influenced by Bill Evans, Mehldau has no problem converting songs by Radiohead, the Beatles and Nick Drake into extended jazz workouts and placing them on footing equal to George Gershwin and Cole Porter standards. Mehldau made albums with opera singer Renee Fleming, guitarist Pat Metheny and pop producer Jon Brion without pandering on any project. Albums to start with: Back at the Vanguard, Day is Done.

Madeleine Peyroux

Singer Madeleine Peyroux’s voice sounds more than a little like Billie Holiday, but her style is closer to Joni Mitchell’s. Born in the South, raised in New York and California and seasoned in Paris, Peyroux splits the distance between jazz, folk and pop. Her interpretations of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams numbers made her a star on Lilith Fair stages a decade ago and earned her acclaim as the “Best International Jazz Artist” by the BBC in 2007. Albums to start with: Dreamland, Half the Perfect World.

Miguel Zenón

Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenon recalls the tasteful, silky tone of Paul Desmond. In little more than five years, he’s released four albums, worked as a founding member of the SF Jazz Collective, won the Best New Artist award from JazzTimes in 2006 and named Rising Star-Alto Saxophone for three consecutive years in the Down Beat Critic’s Poll. While Zenon’s horn rests easily on the ears, his arrangements capture the spirit of his native island through insistent originals and unlikely hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Albums to start with: Jibaro, Awake.

Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider’s compositions for her jazz orchestra have been some of the most ambitious works in the jazz canon since the heyday of the Duke Ellington Orchestra or Dave Brubeck’s late-’60s expositions. At once sweeping and evocative, Schnieder’s near-classical pieces reveal the deep influence of Gil Evans. The cinematic expanse of her work takes the listener on a journey where everyone from George Gershwin to Gustav Mahler is likely to appear. Albums to start with: Evanescence, Sky Blue.

Keep Reading: 15 Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years

Part Two

Part Three

Five Legends Still Adding to Their Legacies