By Joel Francis
Kansas – The Absence of Presence
The 16th album by wayward (and native) sons Kansas manages to capture the essence of what made the radio-friendly prog-rock band popular in the 1970s, while infusing it with enough new blood to ensure the group will carry on well into the 21st century.
All of the music on The Absence of Presence is written by newcomers Zak Rizvi and Tom Brislin. The pair handles the lion’s share of the lyrics as well, although founding member Phil Ehart co-wrote the words on four songs.
Absence also marks lead vocalist Ronnie Platt’s second outing with the band. He doesn’t sound like longtime frontman Steve Walsh, but his voice is familiar enough to slide into the void left by Walsh’s absence.
The result is what you would expect. Lots of violin/keyboard duets, powerful drums and big, chugging guitars that turn on a dime. The best moments on The Absence of Presence come during the many instrumental sections when the seven musicians are able to play off each other. Close your eyes during “Propulsion 1” or the instrumental breakdowns during “Animals on the Roof” and “The Song the River Sang” and it’s hard not to slip back in time.
Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers
Phoenix-born singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews bares her crushed soul on Old Flowers. Song cycles about heartbreak are nothing new, but Andrews makes her worthwhile addition to this vast cannon with a hushed production that rewards close – and repeated – listens and an eye for detail, like dancing in Nashville and walking on Venice Beach under a full moon.
Old Flowers opens with “Burlap String,” which sounds like an outtake from Neil Young’s Harvest and sets the scene of “a family and a house/where the memories of us belong.” The enchanting “If I Told” is a beautiful tale of longing that captures the spark of a new relationship. The ache behind the delicate melody is teased out by what sounds like the ghosts of piano keys in the background that ultimately swells into an organ that consumes the track.
These wistful memories give way to the devastation of “Carnival Dream” and a cascading drum part that reinforces the hurt. By the time we get to “Ships in the Night,” Andrews can admit to her onetime love “I know you felt the same way/but the timing wasn’t right.”
Andrews captures her pain so elegantly and perfectly on Old Flowers it is nearly impossible not to be moved. Its orbit is so powerful that it can draw in unprepared listeners. Played in the right time and space, it is a jewel.
Various artists – Soul of a Nation: Jazz is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher
Given the number of collections available, there must be a substantial appetite for jazz and funk music created during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Soul of a Nation: Jazz is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher is another new three-album collection covering the era of the Black Arts Movement, when jazz, funk, fusion and street poetry crisscrossed and inspired the mind as much as the feet.
Several of the names included here – Funkadelic, Gil Scott-Heron, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Don Cherry – should be recognizable, even if the performances are more obscure. Some songs may take some acclimation. “Theme De Yo-Yo,” by Art Ensemble of Chicago sounds like a R&B song wedged into a free jazz performance. “Space Jungle Funk” by Oneness of Juju is everything you think it is.
Even the more accessible numbers, such as Baby Huey’s “Hard Times” and James Mason’s “Sweet Power of Your Embrace,” a synthesizer-driven funk song that could have been the theme song to a ‘70s cop show, refuse to become background music. Jazz is the Teacher is a demanding collection, but if you’re willing to invest, it is richly rewarding.