Social Distancing Spins – Day 20

By Joel Francis

O.V. Wright – Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose (1977) O.V. Wright is the greatest soul singer you’ve never heard. Wright had some chart success in the mid-to-late 1960s, but a prison term for narcotics sidelined his career. When Wright got out he cut several albums for Hi Records, the home of Al Green and Anne Peebles. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose was Wright’s first record post-incarceration and it has the pent-up power of a man finally able to cut loose. Hi Rhythm, the studio house band, provides the perfect support throughout. The album is barely longer than half an hour, but it is consistently superb throughout. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose is definitely work seeking out.

Wu-Tang Clan – Iron Flag (2001) Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is Staten Island hip hop collective’s best album, but Iron Flag is my favorite. Released just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, every MC is on point here to protect their city. Running under an hour at 12 tracks and no skits, this is a focused, fierce Clan. Blaxploitation horns power “In the Hood” (which starts after a brief introduction) and the single “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” a track so strong it threatens to jump out of the speakers and start a fight. Method Man’s “Y’all Been Warned” pivots on a simple keyboard and guitar sample. Boasting has long been a staple of hip hop, but the braggadocio here takes on a deeper significance in the wake of 9/11. Or as Ghostface Killah puts it on “Rules:” “Together we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” We should be so lucky as to have him in charge.

Booker T. and the MGs – McLemore Avenue (1970) The Fab Four cast a long shadow. Here the Stax Records house band – and hitmakers on their own – pay tribute to Abbey Road by naming their album after the street where Stax resides. The album is three long medleys and a stand-alone cover of “Something.” A 15-minute track comprising the final medley on Abbey Road kicks things off. It’s a bit odd to hear “The End” so early in the album but ultimately not a big deal. The second side encompasses roughly the rest of Abbey Road’s flip side, with the exception of the closing medley that opens McLemore Avenue. Got that? The musicianship is stellar. Booker T.’s organ does most of the heavy lifting with the melodies, but Steve Cropper’s guitar always comes in at the right moments to help out. The rhythm section of Duck Dunn and Al Jackson is equally superb. If you like the Beatles and/or classic R&B, this is the album for you.

Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos (1992) The Memphis power pop and cult band Big Star only made three albums during their initial run, losing band members after each release. Guitarist and singer Chris Bell was the first to exit. I Am the Cosmos collects the songs Bell made in the mid-‘70s after leaving Big Star, with many tracks featuring his old bandmates. The only song on this collection that came out during Bell’s lifetime is the title number, which never came near the charts but grew so large in the Big Star lore that the band started performing it when they regrouped in the 1990s. The music is raw and vulnerable and in addition to displaying the power pop chops of Big Star also points the way to introspective indie rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie. For proof, look no further than “Speed of Sound,” used masterfully in the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Big Star’s Third is hailed as the group’s lost masterpiece, but in many ways I Am the Cosmos is just as important and more accessible.

Elton John – Honky Chateau (1972) As Elton John’s first No. 1 album, Honky Chateau helped tip the pianist toward stardom. Everyone knows “Rocket Man” but the rest of the songs may be even better. “Hercules” is folk pop in the vein of early Cat Stevens, while “Slave” veers toward country. The deceptively bouncy “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” hides a lyric so caustic and cynical that Elvis Costello would blush. Ballads “Mellow” and “Salvation” are the type of song that would become overblown productions in a few years. They are great here in standard rock band arrangements.

The true gem for me is the wonderful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” which I first heard in Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous. Yeah, I know I’m not breaking any stereotypes about music nerds here. Want to come over and help me arrange my albums autobiographically? We can look for inside jokes in the liner notes.

Review: Snoop Dogg with Method Man and Redman

 (Above: Snoop Dogg performs a medley of old hits on Nov. 6 at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
The revue that brought rappers Snoop Dogg, Method Man and Redman to the Voodoo Lounge on Friday was called the “Wonderland High School Tour.” The promoters should have inserted the word “reunion.”

Hip-hop has turned the corner as a genre. Its former disposable nature and willingness to discard any artist who dared to fall behind a trend, regardless of their past successes, has shifted to establishing legacy artists.

Despite releasing new –- and very good –- material, the three artists were more than happy to trade on their old numbers for most of the evening’s performances.

The sold-out crowd couldn’t have been happier.

After opening with a trio of cuts from his new album-length collaboration with Redman, “Blackout! 2,” including the excellent singles “A-Yo” and “City Lights,” sometime Wu-Tang Clan MC Method Man announced his intentions.

“We want to take this back to when hip-hop was good,” he declared, before launching into Redman’s 1992 song “Time 4 Sum Aksion.” That was followed by Meth’s signature song, the 1993 Wu-Tang classic “Method Man.”

A couple hours later, Snoop Dogg echoed the sentiment. Asking the crowd who came to hear the “classic stuff,” he beamed when the audience erupted in screams.

Snoop opened his 80-minute set with “The Next Episode.” The five-piece backing band added muscle and intensity to Dr. Dre’s nimble arrangements. The hits “P.I.M.P.,” originally recorded with 50 Cent in 2003, and 1993’s breakthrough “Gin and Juice” followed, sending the audience into ecstasy.

Snoop was so enamored with his early ‘90s, Death Row heyday he brought out Lady of Rage to deliver her part on a song from “Doggystyle,” Snoop’s debut album, and her one hit, “Afro-Puffs.”

Rage has been missing in action for better than a decade, but everyone sang along to her hit like Newt Gingrich had just announced the Contract with America. Snoop was all smiles, slinking around the stage and working the crowd as Rage took the spotlight.

The Death Row glory days connection was reinforced when Snoop paid tribute to 2Pac with a performance of “Hail Mary.”

There were some concessions to newer material. “Riding in My Chevy” was well received, but the magnificent “Drop It Like It’s Hot” was tethered to a cover of House of Pain’s 1992 hit “Jump Around.” Why did Snoop feel he needed to attach his song to a one-hit wonder? Also a mystery is why Snoop chose to ignore his upcoming album except for a quick plug at the end of the set.

At any rate, “Hot” was the finest musical moment of the night. The full band fleshed out the bare-bones album arrangement, adding deeper bass and bigger bass. The performance gradually built in intensity until both band and crowd alike were flat-out rocking.

The biggest problem with Snoop’s set was his over-reliance on back-up MCs Kurupt and Daz Dillinger. Their solo turns took time away from other song Snoop could have performed and their backing role was the equivalent of Garrett Morris delivering the news for the hearing impaired on Saturday Night Live.

A medley of “Deep Cover,” “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” and “B— Please” went off like a flash pot. A delirious crowd devoured every beat, recited every syllable and danced furiously. It was the hip hop equivalent of “Jump” or even “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Snoop closed with another crowd-pleaser: “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)”

Snoop’s laid-back delivery and contentment to stroll and swagger across the stage stood in contrast to the kinetic energy of Method Man and Redman. The pair barely stood still throughout their hour-long set, delivery Wu-Tang favorites, solo cuts like “Bring the Pain” and “You’re All I Need To Get By” and the obligatory tribute to deceased Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

The duo was backed by frequent Wu-Tang producer Mathematics and DJ Nice and scored points with the pro-cannabis crowd by performing weed anthems “How High” and “Part II.” Marijuana was a reoccurring theme of the night. A pair of sheriffs camped on either side of the club entrance and the beginning of the night and a lingering presence later in the night quashed many would-be smokers. The dense clouds produced by the overhead smoke machines created enough cover for the rest.

The evening kicked off promptly at 8 p.m. with the only performer who wasn’t tied to the 1990s. Devin the Dude provided an hour of rhymes about women and weed. His base lyrics and laconic delivery found many fans in the crowd but were no match for what followed.