funkadelic, paul mccartney, alanis morissette album covers

Random record reviews: Alanis Morissette, Paul McCartney, Funkadelic

By Joel Francis

Alanis Morissette – Such Pretty Forks in the Road

On her first album in eight years, Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette gets introspective and a little too comfortable. Such Pretty Forks in the Road hits the turnpike out of the gate, but takes an unfortunate detour, succumbing to its own ponderous weight before getting back on track for the final songs.

Written for her children, “Ablaze” belongs on any Morissette best-of playlist and features one of the best lyrics on the album: “My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze.” The piano-driven confessional “Reasons I Drink” could be a b-side from Fiona Apple’s stellar Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “Drink” is followed by “Diagnosis,” a frank look at depression and mental illness. These songs are saved from being pablum for a group therapy session by a raw, honest delivery and arrangements that heighten Morissette’s emotions.

Unfortunately, Forks then takes a wrong turn. The songs start to blend (bland) together and the lyrics grow treacly. “Losing the Plot, a song about insomnia, did a good job of putting this listener to sleep. “Sandbox Love” suggests something new with a shimmering guitar intro, but collapses into the same middle-of-the-road quicksand.

Closing numbers “Nemesis” and “Pedestal” end the album on a strong note, but anyone pining for the raw anger of her ‘90s breakthrough oughta know those days are nowhere to be found.

Paul McCartney – Flaming Pie

Paul McCartney went all-in after the Beatles Anthology pushed the Fab Four back into the spotlight. For his first post-Anthology album, McCartney enlisted Anthology producer Jeff Lynne and called on old pals Ringo Starr and George Martin.

The resulting album, Flaming Pie, hits that sweet spot where the performances shine without seeming over-labored and the songwriting has a relaxed feel without feeling tossed-off. The first time McCartney was able to sustain this zone throughout an entire album he delivered Band on the Run. While Flaming Pie isn’t as good as that album, it isn’t far off and may be as close to that apex as we will ever see again.

High points include the Ringo-assisted “Beautiful Night,” the R&B number “Souvenir” and single “The Song We Were Singing,” where McCartney confronts his legacy with the great lyric “I go back so far/I’m in front of me.” The acoustic “Little Willow” is a heartfelt ballad, while album-closing “Great Day” could have appeared on Ram.

If you have some spare change, consider buying the deluxe version. The extra LP finds McCartney laying down early versions of these songs accompanied only by his own guitar (or piano). Ringing phones, overhead airplanes, barking dogs and passing trains only add to the intimacy.

Funkadelic – Maggot Brain

George Clinton’s genre melting experiment never soared as high as it does on Maggot Brain, the third album from Funkadelic. Guitarist Eddie Hazel’s 10-minute solo on the title track may be the finest sound coaxed from six strings by any rock axeman not named Jimi Hendrix. “Can You Get to That” exists in a world where Crosby, Stills and Nash recorded with Norman Whitfield-era Temptations. “Hit It and Quit It” reimagines jazz organist Jimmy Smith as a member of a Bay-area jam band. “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks” combines the spirit of Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder with a jazz trio.

funkadelic maggot brain album cover

And that’s just side one.

Any trepidation of musical whiplash reading these descriptions would be well-founded, but somehow everything hangs together. Clinton’s vision of putting heavy metal, gospel, folk, funk and any other LSD-inspired musical visions into the blender and seeing what pours out resulted in a collection that is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts. Each performance supports the other possibly because the only points of reference for this sound are the other songs on the album.

Funkadelic released many other superb albums in the 1970s – to say nothing of brother band Parliament’s output – but they never danced so freely on the edge of threatening to fall into the abyss while simultaneously grabbing anything with an arm’s length to raise them into the stratosphere.

Keep reading:

Social Distancing Spins – Day 53, featuring Eddie Hazel, Miles Davis, Alex Chilton, Tom Petty, The Roots and Insurgence DC

Social Distancing Spins – Day 61, the solo Beatles releases of 1973

Review: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars

Review: D’Angelo

(Above: D’Angelo’s signature slow jam “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” eventually ends up in church as the closing number in his June 9, 2015, concert at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The quaint concept of chronos means nothing to D’Angelo.

Twenty years after releasing his first album, the soul singer made his Kansas City debut at the Midland on Thursday night. He kept the crowd waiting more than an hour after an abbreviated opening set by Meg Mac’s backing band (the Australian singer was ill and unable to perform). Perfunctory encore breaks stretched more than five minutes.

D’Angelo made every moment worth the wait, and then some.

D'Angelo FYI al 061115 0321 Songs that span a few minutes on the album were stretched to more than double their length throughout the night as D’Angelo and his 10-piece band, The Vanguard, rode the groove and twisted every wrinkle out of the arrangements. The two-hour set leaned heavily on last year’s “Black Messiah” — his first release in 14 years.

A leading player in the mid-’90s neosoul movement, D’Angelo wears his influences proudly. “Sugah Daddy” started as one of the best Sly Stone songs D’Angelo never wrote (and better than several he did), until a flick of the wrist transformed it into a James Brown jam. The vamp between the first two songs of the night, “Ain’t That Easy” and “Betray My Heart,” sounded like a lost Parliament-Funkadelic track. References to Prince and Earth, Wind and Fire also were abundant.There wasn’t a bum note or dull moment in the set, but a few songs stand out. The powerful #blacklivesmatter anthem “The Charade” ended with D’Angelo and his two guitarists clustered together, taking solos as the song built in intensity.The pairing of “Left and Right” and “Chicken Grease” pushed the party to another level. With the two horn players and three backing vocalists lining the front of the stage, it felt like a New Orleans parade.D'Angelo FYI al 061115 0335Fans started heading toward the exits during the first encore set, when the clock tipped toward midnight. The ones who stayed were treated to an epic version of “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s biggest song. Unlike the infamous video, D’Angelo kept his clothes on, but ended the slow jam by dismissing his band members one by one, until he was alone behind the keyboard.

“Really Love” offered a chance for several band members to shine. Singer Kendra Foster stole the spotlight with ballet-influenced moves during the introduction. Bass player Pino Palladino’s nimble fingers provided a delicate counterpoint to Isaiah Starkey’s classical guitar. Later in the song, D’Angelo pulled Starkey out front for a great call-and-response solo, where scatting was transformed into fretwork.

Seconds after saying goodnight during “Chicken Grease,” D’Angelo called the saxophone player forward for a solo and disappeared, only to quickly return playing guitar. It would be another 20 minutes before he said goodnight and meant it. And everyone in the house was better for it.

Setlist: Ain’t That Easy; Betray My Heart; Spanish Joint; Really Love; The Charade; Brown Sugar; Sugah Daddy. Encore 1: Another Life / Back to the Future / Left and Right / Chicken Grease. Encore 2: Untitled (How Does It Feel).
Keep reading:

Review: Chuck Brown Winds Up Annapolis

(Above: Chuck Brown reworks the “Batman” theme at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.)

By Joel Francis

ANNAPOLIS, MD – When you’re as well-known and revered as Chuck Brown, it’s hard going anywhere unnoticed. Especially onstage.

Brown rattled off shout-outs, hellos and congratulations for several minutes before his eight-piece band finally settled down to business for the first of two Black Friday shows at Rams Head Live.

As the reigning Godfather of Go-Go, Brown showed off his guitar chops and sharp horn section with the extended opener “Love Theme from The Godfather.” Brown then put everyone in the holiday mood with a reading of “Merry Christmas, Baby” that lived somewhere between B.B. King and George Clinton. But the dance floor set up to the left of the stage remained conspicuously vacant.

The opening words of “Run Joe” – a cross between the Coasters, hip hop, reggae and a children’s song – unleashed a stampede to the floor. The moving multitude knew exactly when to throw Brown’s catch-phrases back at him, and forced the 73-year-old performer to split his time between the bodies in front of the stage and the spirited congregation on the side.

Go-go is a funk hybrid driven by congas and percussion and a palette wide enough to include jazz, blues, pop and Caribbean influences. Brown helped pioneer the form in the mid-‘70s. Born in Washington, D.C., the genre has yet to catch on beyond the Mid-Atlantic states. Brown’s shows feel like a cross between Parliament-Funkadelic and Jimmy Buffett.

Like Buffett, Brown has a dedicated following who know all the calls and responses and relish the opportunity to feel like part of the band. And like P-Funk, Brown’s band carries a strong groove that can hang on or switch up as often – and quickly – as their leader commands.

The heart of the show was Brown’s magnificent medley of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Midnight Sun,” “Moody’s Mood for Love” and the “Woody Woodpecker” theme. These songs were old when Brown started performing them a couple decades ago, but they’ve rarely felt as vital. Brown resuscitated these standards and made them feel like not nostalgic night club pieces but animated dance club anthems. For a moment, it felt a little like how all the stories described the Savoy Ballroom in its heyday.

But Brown’s set isn’t rooted in the past. He invited his daughter, keyboardist K.K., out front to lead the crowd through Lady GaGa’s “Pokerface” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” Thanks to the energy of the crowd and spirited performance by the band, these ubiquitous numbers also felt fresh. The band also proved a lesson that contemporary record producers have yet to learn: Pop music sounds infinitely better with a live rhythm section driving the track.

The evening ended with Lil Benny, another guest singer, leading the crowd through the pop and lock and other dance moves. In a year packed with Michael Jackson tributes, the Benny delivered one of the best. His version of “Butterfly” brought the song out of its cocoon.

Although he never left the stage, Brown closed the set by reclaiming the mic and performing “Bustin’ Loose,” his signature song. At 80 minutes, the performance felt a little light, and Brown conceded too much time to the other vocalists, but no one seemed to mind. Besides, another show was always right around the corner.

With the house lights up, Brown ended the night just as it started, talking with the crowd. Although Rams Head Live isn’t much bigger than the Bottleneck in Lawrence, Kan. – the biggest difference is that the room is positioned horizontally with the stage in the middle, instead of vertically with the stage at the end – it was going to Brown a while to reach the dressing room. And he was going to enjoy every moment of the journey.