Social Distancing Spins – Day 39

By Joel Francis

Cabin fever has taken hold, but let’s not replace it with a real fever. Stay in and stay safe, my friends.

Bob Marley and the Wailers – Rastaman Vibration (1976) Bob Marley had a lot to prove with Rastaman Vibration as former Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer also released their solo debuts that year. But dissonance in the Wailers camp turned to delight for music fans, because all three albums are reggae classics. (We looked at Tosh’s Legalize It yesterday and will likely examine Wailers’ Blackheart Man tomorrow.) Of course, Marley was the biggest star at the time and as such Rastaman Vibration had the greatest resonance. The eighth Marley album, Rastaman Vibration has some of the reggae legend’s best political songs. “Johnny Was” strikes at the casual violence that allows stray bullets to kill innocent bystanders. “Rat Race” calls out a suspected attempted by the CIA to subvert Jamaican politics. The best of them all, though – and arguably Marley’s greatest political song ever – is “War.” As Marley recites Halie Selassie’s 1963 address to the United Nations general assembly the reggae groove behind him simmers, gradually adding backing vocalists and horns. Selassie’s words remain powerful today: “That until the basic human rights/are equally guaranteed to all/without regard to race/this a war.” The song took on added meaning when Sinead O’Connor performed an a cappella version on Saturday Night Live, then tore up a photo of the pope to priests abusing children.

Rastaman Vibration isn’t without light-hearted moments, but songs like “Cry to Me” and “Positive Vibration” are come up short when matched against Marley triumphs “No Woman No Cry” and “Three Little Birds.” The funniest moment in the album comes from the suggestion printed inside the faux burlap textured gatefold sleeve: “This album jacket is great for cleaning herb.”

Marilyn Maye – A Taste of “Sherry!” (1967) Marilyn Maye is a treasure. She started performing around Kansas in the 1930s as a child and had her own live radio show as a teenager. In 1966, Maye was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy (Tom Jones won). Across her seven decade recording career, Maye has appeared on The Tonight Show more than any other singer. To be honest, Maye’s style of jazz/cabaret singing usually isn’t my cup of tea, but after watching her perform at a local jazz festival several years ago I was converted. Her magic and mastery onstage doesn’t completely translate to this album, one of her earliest, but it is a great reminder of an incredible talent from a bygone generation.

The Libertines – Up the Bracket (2002) One of the greatest British punk albums exploded into the garage rock revival populated by the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the White Stripes and a bunch of other decent bands we’ve all forgotten about. The Libertines stood out in this landscape populated by loud guitars and snotty attitudes by being a bit more in-your-face and noisy without being off-putting or obnoxious (well, OK, they could be obnoxious). Blessed with cover artwork that recalled The Clash’s “White Riot,” they did one better and got Clash guitarist Mick Jones to produce the album as well. The result is an aggressive, tuneful romp with catchy songs that manages to live up to its title, British slang for a punch in the throat.

Prince – Dirty Mind (1980) Before “Little Red Corvette” and “Let’s Go Crazy” made him a superstar, Prince was a just hard-working funk prodigy hailing from the Upper Midwest (or nowhere, by the standards of the suits on the coasts). After proving that he could handle all the instruments himself on his debut, For You, Prince was hungry for even more control and commercial success on his second, self-titled release. He achieved both goals. Dirty Mind invested all the victories from the first two albums and emerged as the first album Prince recorded in his native Minneapolis with the local musicians previously in his touring band.

Dirty Mind contains all of Prince’s calling cards: carefree pop – “Uptown,” “When You Were Mind” – sexual controversy – “Sister,” “Head” – and a mélange of genres that roamed from new wave to soul and from rock to funk across little more than half an hour. Dirty Mind was the first classic album of Prince’s career and it remains a must-own record today.

John Legend and The Roots – Wake Up! (2010) When this album came out a decade ago, Barak Obama had been sworn in as the first black president in American history and the Tea Party were still calling themselves tea baggers and had yet to take power in the halls of congress. It is important to establish the political context into which Wake Up! was released, because this collaboration between John Legend and The Roots is a very political anthem. The best band in hip hop and the soul crooner selected 11 largely unknown soul protest songs and recast them for this new (Obama) era. As always, The Roots are impeccable and the carefully selected guests add gravitas with their performances. Legend is a capable singer but I can’t help wish that Raphael Saadiq or D’Angelo were helming the project instead. There are several times – particularly during the lengthy version of Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed” and “Hard Times” (a song Curtis Mayfield wrote for Baby Huey, who we discussed back on Day 31) – where Legend’s voice is too smooth and lacks the depth to bring the anger and desperation of the lyrics fully to life. But perfect should never be the enemy of good and Wake Up! is very good indeed. It is also sadly all too relevant.

Blakroc – self-titled (2009) The words “Black Keys” only appear once on this album, in small print inside the gatefold. That’s too bad, because fans of the blues-turned-arena band would probably find a lot to like here. True, Dan Auerbach cedes his vocals to a dozen or so MCs, but the musical guts of this record are the undeniable – and unmistakable – guitar and drums grooves that have powered the duo’s rock releases. The pair provide some very Wu Tang-inspired backing for the RZA and Pharoahe Monch on “Dollaz and Sense.” The collaborations with Diplomat Jim Jones are some of few times when the traditional Keys sensibilities cut through. Jones guests with Mos Def on “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)” and appears with Nicole Wray and Billy Danze on “What You Do To Me.” Whether you are a hip hop head or rock fan, there is plenty of gold in Blakroc.

Powerful songs help move protest music back in mainstream

(Above: D’Angelo exposes “The Charade” in the opening hours of Black History Month on “Saturday Night Live.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two anthems of the civil rights movement were released within days of each other, in the dying weeks of 2014. John Legend and Common wrote “Glory” for the civil rights film “Selma.” As the third track on D’Angelo’s long-delayed third album, “The Charade” was released with less fanfare but greater anticipation.

More importantly, after being shunted to the underground for more than a decade, protest music has reemerged in the mainstream. Both “Glory” and “The Charade” were performed on national, network television in February.

Glory-From-the-Motion-Picture-_Selma_-SingleOn paper, “Glory” almost looks too obvious. John Legend recorded an entire album of R&B protest songs with The Roots in 2010 (with Common guesting on the lead single). Common’s history of uplifting poetry has earned him invitations to perform at the White House and guest spots from Maya Angelou and the Last Poets on his albums. “Glory” isn’t the first time Common has invoked Martin Luther King for a film. In 2006, he collaborated with Will.I.Am an end-credits anthem for the movie “The Freedom Writers” that sampled King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

It is clear from the opening gospel chords, that “Glory” is a celebration. It doesn’t challenge the listener like Common’s “Song for Asatta” or Legend’s version of “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” It something we can all feel good about while listening. That may sound like an insult, but it’s not. The civil rights movement brought out the worst in our society, and anyone who weathered that storm, or had a loved one who did, deserves a moment to catch their breath, smile and feel proud.

(Above: Common and John Legend show “Glory” at the Grammys.)

While “Glory” namechecks Ferguson, “The Charade” captures the confusion, frustration and anger of the injustice there. “All we wanted was a chance to talk,” D’Angelo pleads in the chorus. “’Stead we only got outlined in chalk.”

Like most of the songs on “Black Messiah,” “The Charade” doesn’t announce its presence as much as slink into being. D’Angelo’s lyrics are tough to decipher on the first listen, demanding repeated listens and close attention. “Glory” has a gospel choir; “The Charade” has multi-tracked vocals.

The difference between the songs is even more stark in performance. On “Saturday Night Live” D’Angelo and his band dressed in all black, with a chalk outline behind the singer on the floor. Backing vocalists wore shirts stating “I Can’t Breath” and “Black Lives Matter.” D’Angelo wore a hoodie, his face hidden in the shadows. The blistering delivery was a gauntlet – ignore this, America. Driving the point home, the ensemble raised fists in the air over the dying notes, summoning images of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

Less than two weeks later, Common and Legend were tapped to close the Grammys. Backed by an orchestra and a gospel choir, everyone wore suits and was clean-shaven. The production dovetailed with Beyonce’s stirring version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” King’s favorite song. The performance was moving, but if “Glory” didn’t feel as powerful as “The Charade” on “SNL,” it might be because it felt more safe.

“Glory” points to how far we’ve come and “The Charade” shows how far we have to go, but both songs end up at the same hopeful place. “Comin’ of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory,” Common concludes. “With the veil off our eyes, we’ll truly see/and we’ll march on,” D’Angelo affirms. “And it really won’t take too long.”

Keep reading:

John Legend and the Roots – “Wake Up!”

Edwin Starr – “War”

Review: Gil Scott-Heron

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