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Posts Tagged ‘Nina Simone’

Day 33

By Joel Francis

Keep grinding and hang in there, my friends.

Dinosaur Jr. – Farm (2009) Of all the ‘80s underground bands that reunited, Dinosaur Jr. might be the most underappreciated. If you read Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, you may remember the chapter on Dinosaur Jr. as being the most venomous and spite-filled. (If you haven’t read this book, grab a copy and chow down. It’s not only a wonderful primer on how we got from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana, but a heck of a ride in the van with several then-unknown/now-influential bands.)

Yet just six years after guitarist J. Mascis and bass play Lou Barlow spilled their bile over the page, they were not only playing shows together again, but making new music. Farm is the second album in the reunion run. The trio – including drummer Murph – have blown out the cobwebs and are locked in, particularly on the nearly nine-minute song “Imagination Blind.” In the past, Mascis’s ferocious guitar was matched only by his aggressive vocals. His singing is more laid back these days, providing a counter-point that makes his guitar roar even louder. To date, Dinosaur Jr. have released four albums since reconvening – one more than they gave us in their original run. Farm is my favorite from the second batch.

John Cale – Paris 1919 (1973) Perhaps its because he only appeared on half of their albums, but John Cale has always been hidden in Lou Reed’s shadow of the Velvet Underground. There are no traces of the Underground’s sonic experiments with Cale on this, his third album. The songs are all stately and proper, with orchestration and a lyric sheet that reads like Victorian poetry. It’s also a masterpiece. Cale’s lyrics were rarely this direct and his music this accessible – and elegant – again. Think Brian Wilson spiked with Dylan Thomas and you’re getting close. Either way, you’re going to want to hear this. And then play it again.

Bryan Ferry – Boys and Girls (1985) Prior to Boys and Girls, Bryan Ferry solo albums were almost exclusively vehicles for the singer to put his own twist on other people’s material. With the end of Roxy Music, however, solo albums became Ferry’s outlet for his own compositions. Boys and Girls is Ferry’s first album after Roxy, and it retains the same impeccable sheen as Avalon. If anything, Boys and Girls is so polished it tends to get a bit samey. That said, Ferry’s songwriting is strong enough to keep me coming back to it. My favorites here are the opening singles “Sensation” and “Slave To Love” and the haunting title track. If you miss the sound and feel of late-period Roxy Music and want to keep the party going, Boys and Girls is the place to go.

Meshell Ndegeocello – Pour une ame Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone (2012) Look closely at the album title – this is a dedication to Nina Simone, not a tribute. For her tenth solo album, Ndegeocello does her best to reclaim these well-known covers associated with the diva and civil rights activist. It works.

It is almost impossible to think of the Animals version of “Don’t Let Me Be Understood,” except to comment on the vast differences between the interpretations. The same thing goes with Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and “House of the Rising Son.” The sensual “Real Real” with Toshi Reagon sounds something Ndegeocello wrote yesterday, not a 45-year-old Simone song. Simone was always searching for something new in her music, regardless of the cost, personal or professional. Ndegeocello captures that restless, temperamental spirit well across these 14 tracks. This won’t replace either woman’s individual work, but can proudly rest next to them.

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 (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

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(Above: Bettye LaVette owns The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. This performance helped inspire LaVette’s latest album, and is included as a bonus track.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

From Rod Stewart to Barry Manilow, albums based on the 1960s and ‘70s pop song book are a dime a dozen and usually worth even less. So while the concept behind Bettye LaVette’s latest album may not be novel, the delivery certainly is. LaVette has audaciously selected a baker’s dozen of the era’s biggest songs and steals every single performance.

Throughout “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” LaVette not only erases Paul McCartney and Elton John’s fingerprints from “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” respectively. She scrubs off four decades of radio saturation, turning in performances that arrive sounding completely fresh.

LaVette accomplishes this feat by ignoring the original melody and phrasing and focusing entirely on the lyrics. She crawls inside the words, mining new depth and emotion and lets that frame the arrangement. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” aches with loneliness. LaVette sneaks a reference to HIV/AIDS in “Salt of the Earth,” the Rolling Stones free-love era tribute to the working class. In “Don’t Let the Sun,” LaVette pleads with a desperation that feels like her life is hanging in the balance between light and dark. Robert Plant liked her treatment of “All Of My Love” so much he gave her the opening slot on his summer tour.

While every song fulfills the title by hailing from the United Kingdom, LaVette slyly hedges her bets with two numbers that are also associated with one of her primary influences, Nina Simone. LaVette mirrors Simone’s epic treatment and sparse arrangement of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.” Earlier, LaVette reminds listeners that while the Animals may have had the bigger hit with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” it was originally a Simone single. LaVette happily returns the gift.

Five years into her comeback, LaVette sings like something to prove. At 64 she is a contemporary of most of the performers she covers on “Interpretations.” But while most of them are content to coast by on these very songs, LaVette still sings with a hunger fueled by the decades she unjustly lost in obscurity. The force and authority in her voice make LaVette one of the most vital and compelling artists today.

Keep reading:

Review: Bettye LaVette and Buddy Guy at Roots n Blues BBQ Fest (2008)

Review Roundup – Rakim, Dodos, Naomi Shelton, Blakroc and Daptone Gold

Review – Booker T.

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