Social Distancing Spins – Day 55

By Joel Francis

With today’s entry, we cross the 300 album threshold for social distancing spins. How many more will be added? As much as it takes for everyone to be safe in public.

George Harrison – Brainwashed (2002) George Harrison’s final album appeared 15 years after his previous release and a year after his death. Of course, this meant Brainwashed received far more attention than it would have otherwise, but the extra press didn’t diminish the fact that Brainwashed features some of the most consistent songwriting and playing in Harrison’s catalog. Certainly being able to cherry-pick the best work from such a long period of time works in the album’s favor, but the songs all hang together as a relaxed portrait of the Quiet Beatle abandoning any pretense of chasing a hit and meditating on the same themes of spirituality and mortality that go back to “Within You, Without You” and “The Inner Light.” The tablas and sitars of those Beatles songs have been replaced with acoustic guitars and ukuleles. Although completed after Harrison’s death by his son and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne, Brainwashed never feels incomplete or patched together. It is an incredible, cohesive parting gift from a major talent.

Carolyn Franklin – Chain Reaction (1970) Carolyn Franklin may not have the pipes of her older sister Aretha, but then again, few people did. What she is also sadly lacking on Chain Reaction, her second album and first for major label RCA, is a sympathetic producer. Most of the songs on Chain Reaction are drowned in strings and the type of earnest production that sunk many of her sister’s better moments on Columbia. Also, curiously, despite penning the hits “Angel” and “Ain’t No Way” for her sister, Carolyn Franklin didn’t write any songs for Chain Reaction. The album is pleasing – Franklin is too good a singer for it to be a bust – but also leaves me wishing she had punchier production like Aretha was finally receiving at Atlantic at the time Chain Reaction came out.

By the end of the decade, Carolyn Franklin was all but out of the music industry, although she did appear as one of her sister’s backing singers in The Blues Brothers. Sadly, Carolyn Franklin died from breast cancer in 1988.

J Dilla – The Shining (2006) J Dilla’s third album was more than halfway done before the revered hip hop producer succumbed to lupus six months before The Shining’s release. As such, it feels a little incomplete as an album and rushed as a tribute. There are some amazing moments to be found here, to be sure. Common and D’Angelo ride a sample of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” into the spiritual stratosphere. As a bonus, the version on The Shining is 60 heavenly seconds longer than the one on Common’s album Finding Forever. Another high point is the Pharoahe Monch feature “Love,” built around Curtis Mayfield and the Impression’s “We Must Be in Love.” Less successful is Busta Rhyme’s pointless profanity on the introductory cut and MED and Guilty Simpson’s waste of a great percussive track on “Jungle Love.” Solid contributions from Black Thought and Dwele make up for these missteps, but it’s hard not to wonder if executive producer Karriem Riggins had waited a bit longer he could have found stronger contributors for all the tracks. Then again, maybe Busta and Guilty Simpson were already in the can when Dilla passed. It’s hard to know for sure. What is definite, however, are Dilla’s skills as a producer (and MC, as he shows on the final song here). Gone too soon at age 32, any time with Dilla is well spent.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy in This Land (2018) Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite won a Grammy for their first album together, so a sequel was inevitable. Funny thing, though – I like No Mercy in This Land even more than the first one. Chemistry wasn’t a problem before, but it feels like the two musicians play off each other even better this time around. Maybe all the time on the road broadened their musical rapport. The songs here, again all written and primarily sung by Harper, are uniformly excellent. Musselwhite knows exactly how to dart around Harper’s voice and guitar, to accent and punctuate without getting in the way. The song “Love and Trust” first appeared on Mavis Staples’ album Livin’ on a High Note two years prior (and discussed back on Day 41). It’s hard not to miss her husky, soulful voice on this version. Otherwise No Mercy in This Land is the blues at its best.

Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody (2017) The days of the Flaming Lips being able to write a catchy pop melody along the lines of “Do You Realize” or “She Don’t Use Jelly” were well behind them when they started work on their 14th album. Instead, the songs on Oczy Mlody – Polish for young eyes – float in the same atmosphere, equally informed by hip hop beats as much as psychedelic prog rock.  As such, most of the songs tend to blend together. One of the sonic experiments that stands out is “There Should Be Unicorns.” I’m not going to attempt to decipher the lyrics, but the song itself is a wonderful mix of bells, drum machines, droning synthesizers and falsetto vocals. The arrangement is captivating on its own terms, but also screams for a remix with someone rapping over the top. Album closer “We a Famly” (featuring Miley Cyrus on backing vocals) is the closest thing to a single here, bringing this unsettling yet satisfying anthology of fairy tales to a close.

Jenny Lewis – On the Line (2019) Before the release of On the Line, I was more of a Jenny Lewis appreciator than a fan. Then I had the opportunity to see Lewis in concert at the Ryman Auditorium a few weeks after On the Line came out. That night converted me, in no small part because the material from On the Line is so strong. A Southern Californian bacchanal, On the Line is steeped in the 1970s MOR sound of Carly Simon, Carole King and Stevie Nicks. Lewis processes the death of her mother and the end of a long relationship with help from studio aces Benmont Tench (from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), drummer Jim Keltner, Beck, Don Was and, unfortunately, Ryan Adams. The lyrics are peppered with references to Elliott Smith, Candy Crush, the Beatles and Stones while the music swoons like someone stepping into a sunny Los Angeles afternoon fighting a hangover.

Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (2012) The second album from Los Angeles-born R&B singer Miguel starts with what sounds like a sideways interpretation of the synth and drum line to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Miguel, however, is more about the sexual than the healing. What keeps the album from being a one-topic wonder, however, are the masterful arrangements that make each song feel like a different psychedelic fantasy. The soundscape grows even more fascinating as one discovers the snippets of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and the Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” casually slipped between the futuristic soul spells.

A closer look at the lyrics, however, reveals that Miguel isn’t as interested in the sex as much as the intimacy. He confesses to wanting to the lights off in “Use Me” and wants to play paper, rock scissors in “Do You.” The reverie ends with “Candles in the Sun,” an entrancing song that asks hard questions about living in poverty and being ignored by the larger society. It’s a somewhat surprising end to an album that has been so inward-focused most of the time, but it also fits with Miguel’s passions. He feels everything so deeply that it is all magnified, especially the existential questions that can’t be easily answered.

Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine (1978) It’s been a while since the excellent Drive soundtrack brought synthpop bubbling back to the surface alongside bands like Cut/Copy and Phoenix. But really, from Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby in the ‘80s to Chvrches and Shiny Toy Guns today, the shiny, synthetic music pioneered by Kraftwerk more than 40 years ago has always survived in one form or another. The Man-Machine didn’t start this movement – that honor mostly likely belongs to Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk’s previous album – but it built upon the concept of layering minimalist songs until they form something more elaborate and inviting for the dance floor. As a result, The Man-Machine became the defining album in Kraftwerk’s catalog. In fact, when I saw the band nearly five years ago (time flies!) they performed every song from the album. To make it even more exciting, they had actual robots come out and perform “The Robots” for the first encore.

Florian Schneider played an immense role in taking Kraftwerk from the primitive nob-twiddling on their early albums to the expansive synth masterworks that defined their best songs. I’m not versed enough in the band to tell you where he added to specific songs. The group likes to remain fairly nebulous. Even seeing them in concert, it looked like four men at podiums. However, Schneider was a founding member of Kraftwerk and present on all their albums through Minimum-Maximum. He also got name-checked by David Bowie on Heroes, and that’s enough street cred for me. Sadly, Schneider died from cancer in late April. The next time you’re on a dance floor, moving to a pulsating synthesizer, or tearing down the highway humming the melody to “Autobahn,” remember this pioneer.

Social Distancing Spins – Day 53

By Joel Francis

Insurgence DC – Broken in the Theater of the Absurd (2019) Insurgence DC formed in the late ‘80s, but Broken in the Theater of the Absurd is just their third album, arriving 19 years after their previous release. The Washington D.C.-based punk trio has plenty to say about the corruption and incompetence they see around their hometown. Reading the lyrics printed across the back of the album, one could be forgiven for thinking she was looking at a Billy Bragg broadside. What keeps songs like “Poison Profits” and “Third Party Opinions” from being op-ed pity parties is a well-seasoned band that plays well off each other and knows how vary textures and arrangements to keep the music fresh. The aggressive songs are tempered by flourishes of avant noise (think Sonic Youth), post-punk moodiness and the gleeful ska of “Pick Pocket Pirates.” Fans of the Dischord label and anyone P.O.ed by the current political landscape will find a lot to like in the Theater of the Absurd.

Miles Davis – In a Silent Way (1969) I shudder to think how Miles Davis would have responded to the age of Twitter. Davis has been dead for nearly 30 years and audiences are still trying to catch up to what he was doing. The period when In a Silent Way came out demonstrates Davis’ restlessness and ambition. Just a year earlier, Davis disbanded his second quintet, one of the most incredible ensembles in music history. Three members of that quintet appear on In a Silent Way, but are used in completely different ways and surrounded by a host of other musicians. I’m having trouble coming up with a contemporary corollary for the sounds here. The last couple Davis quintet albums hinted at this direction, but In a Silent Way’s music still sounds surprising and fresh more than half a century later.

Neither rock, nor jazz (and not fusion), the closest touchstone to the music on In a Silent Way might be a psychedelic, improvised version of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp tried to accomplish both together and on their own in the mid 1970s. In fact, John McLaughlin’s electric guitar that opens the second side on “In a Silent Way/It’s About that Time” sounds like what Daniel Lanois would play with Eno in the 1980s. Davis had long moved on by that point, of course. He jerked even more heads by releasing Bitches Brew, another masterpiece, the following year. The vast expanse of the universe is barely enough to contain all of Davis’ ideas. I’m glad he never had to face myopic imbeciles limited to 280 characters.

Alex Chilton – Songs from Robin Hood Lane (compilation) What is it about the Great American Songbook of the 1930s to ‘50s that compels repeated interpretations? Late in his recording career Alex Chilton drew from this well for two solid albums. The output bears absolutely no resemblance to the power pop that Chilton created with Big Star or the blue-eyed soul he brought to the Box Tops. While no one would confuse him with Grant Green, the albums do reveal Chilton has decent jazz guitar chops. Chilton’s phrasing and vocal delivery also depict him as someone completely at home in this style of music. The title of this collection holds the key to Chilton’s comfort with these jazz standards. Robin Hood Lane was the name of the suburban Memphis street where Chilton grew up hearing his mom play these classic songs endlessly. Come to this collection not expecting “September Gurls” or “Cry Like a Baby,” but with an open mind to hear another facet from a criminally neglected (by mainstream society and himself) artist.

Eddie Hazel – Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs (1977) Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel left his stamp on many P-Funk classics (dig “Maggot Brain” as Exhibit A) but this was the only solo album released in his lifetime. Solo is a relative term here. Bassman Bootsy Collins co-wrote three of the songs here and keyboard legend Bernie Worrell is credited on two. Those two, plus the Brides of Funkenstein and a host of other P-Funk players all appear, but the album really does belong to Hazel. He transforms “California Dreamin’” into a slow jam and turns the Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” into an acid-drenched guitar workout. The original songs fit well into the P-Funk songbook, but Hazel’s playing is remains prominent throughout. Although Hazel continued to sporadically appear on P-Funk releases after this album dropped, he was never as prominent as before. Thankfully back in print, Game is essential not only for P-Funk fans, but anyone who wondered what Jimi Hendrix or Ernie Isley might have sounded like fronting a funk band.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981) Nearly 40 years ago, when Hard Promises came out, MCA records wanted to hike the price to $9.98. Today, you can down the album on iTunes for $9.99. Inflation, huh? Petty and the boys refused to be the reason their label nicked fans an extra buck and Hard Promises eventually came out at the standard price of $8.98. Regardless of how much you paid, the music here is worth the investment. The songwriting on Hard Promises is every bit as good as Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s previous album, but doesn’t suffer from the same overexposure. The album starts with the classic “The Waiting” before leading into “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” the album’s second single. The remaining eight songs are all album cuts, but still beloved to hardcore Petty fans. Stevie Nicks duets on the gorgeous “Insider,” the Heartbreakers roar on “A Thing About You” and the album ends with another delicate ballad, “You Can Still Change Your Mind.” In between we get the slinky “Nightwatchman” and “The Criminal Mind,” which opens with a slide guitar part that sounds like a country version of the riff from “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

Heartbreakers bass player Ron Blair left after this album and didn’t return until 20 years later. Of the four original-lineup Heartbreakers albums, Hard Promises is easily my favorite. Heck, it might be my favorite Petty album pre-Full Moon Fever. Either way, all American rock fans need this album.

The Roots – Game Theory (2006) The Philadelphia natives that comprise The Roots are often labelled the best band in hip hop, an unsubtle jab at other groups that don’t play traditional instruments. Twenty-seven years after their debut album, I think it’s past time to drop the sobriquet and call them what they are: One of the best bands ever. Full stop. After striving (and compromising) for mainstream success on their previous album, The Roots went all-in on a darker, stripped down sound for Game Theory. Even though they weren’t aiming for the charts, I find myself humming the hooks in these songs for days afterward. Named after a mathematical model for decision making, Game Theory stares at big-picture topics like police brutality, drug addiction, poverty and dishonest media outlets. MC Black Thought’s isn’t afraid to drop heavy lyrics, but his delivery swings enough that you wind up tapping your foot as you nod your head. “Clock With No Hands” isn’t just a thought-provoking (no pun intended) look at addiction, but features a beautiful original (read: non-sampled) melody. In fact, one of the few samples on the album comes when Thom Yorke’s voice floats in and out of “Atonement.”

I saw The Roots perform with a full horn section on back-to-back nights of the Game Theory tour and they are among the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not in hip hop, but among everyone. Full stop.

Various Artists – Lows in the Mid-Sixties: Vol. 54: Kosmic City Part 2 (compilation) Between 1967 and 1973, Cavern Studios in eastern Kansas City, Mo., were a hotbed of recording activity. Local groups could venture into the subterranean limestone cave where the studio was located and, for the right amount of money, walk out with a record. The best of the rock sides were compiled on Numero’s exquisite collection Local Customs: Cavern Sounds, shown back on Day 12. Lows in the Mid-Sixties is a companion to that release, rounding up 14 covers of well-known hits by bands you’ve never heard. It is solid garage rock with a touch of psychedelia sprinkled across for good measure. One of my favorites is Dearly Beloved’s version of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” Dearly Beloved have clearly studied Van Morrison and Them’s cover, but removed the shimmering signature guitar line (later sampled by Beck on “Jack Ass”). The music here is far from essential and I’m not sure how interesting it might be to an audience beyond KC’s metropolitan area, but it proves the local music scene was humming around the Age of Aquarius.

John Legend and the Roots – “Wake Up!”

 (Above: First Stephen Foster, then Ray Charles. Now John Legend and the Roots have “Hard Times.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A little more than three months after releasing one of the best albums of their 17-year career, The Roots are back, this time with John Legend.

The pairing is inspired. The Roots have long have a reputation as the best band in hip hop. For the past couple years they’ve proved their mettle to the mainstream as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Legend is clearly a great talent, but often gets overwhelmed by slick production and light-weight songwriting. These 10 reinterpretations of classic soul protest songs offer the perfect platform for him to shine.

Legend lives up to the opportunity, singing with grit and emotion only hinted at on his solo albums, and feeding off the Roots’ vibe. Opening cut “Hard Times,” a lost Curtis Mayfield classic written for Baby Huey, feeds off a horn line ricocheting off of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s drums and Captain Kirk Douglas’ bright guitar. Black Thought’s rap in the middle reinforces the track’s message and feel. This is music to spark both revolution and revelry.

“Wake Up Everybody” features a guest rhyme from Common that feels like a verse from a lost hymn. Legend’s duet with Melanie Fiona here captures the same mood as a classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell number. “Little Ghetto Boy” – bolstered by another Black Thought cameo – and the buoyant gospel reading of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” are other high points.

Unfortunately, the album can’t sustain these moments. Legend’s vocal shortcomings come to the foreground on “Wholy Holy.”Gaye’s voice soars effortlessly on the original, while Legend strains just to lift off. His over-singing on Bill Wither’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is accidentally exposed by Douglas’ understated, tasteful soloing.

Not all of the blame lies at Legend’s feet. Normally an impeccable arranger, there are some surprising issues with Thompson’s choices. Les McCann’s “Compared to What” swings and skips like a rock skimming the top of a lake. Thompson’s slower arrangement is leaden in comparison. His treatment of Lincoln Thompson’s (no relation) reggae song “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” hews closely to the original, but without the Jamaican patois it seems stiff and forced. The performance should have been reworked to emphasize what Legend could bring to the number.

“Wake Up” was inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and Arcade Fire’s song “Wake Up.” The original plan was record an EP, and truthfully Legend and the Roots should have stayed with that concept. The handful of strong cuts present would have made for an outstanding mid-player. As is, this is a solid album with plenty of outstanding moments, but ample opportunity to skip to the next cut. Or, better yet, seek out the originals.

Keep reading:

Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album