Social Distancing Spins – Days 26 and 27

By Joel Francis

Nice weather and conference calls are an anathema to playing records.

Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003) Reading Jay-Z’s book Decoded has me turning back to his old albums for the first time in quite a while. Sean Carter has always been at his best when rhyming about himself, particularly his early exploits as a hustler. Jay’s told it so many times it’s almost as much cliché as legend by this point. The Black Album is loaded with boasting and taunts over some of the best productions of the time. The Neptunes, Rick Rubin, Just Blaze, Timbaland and a young Kanye West all contribute tracks. One of Hova’s best-known rhymes on the album comes from “Moment of Clarity”: “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.” As we saw on 4:44, Jay can’t really do conscious rap without inevitably turning it back on himself. (Remember his lament over not investing in Dumbo real estate in “The Story of O.J.”?) The Black Album is all about Jay-Z all the time, and we are better for it.

Paul McCartney – Press To Play (1986) Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that Press to Play was a solid Paul McCartney album, unfairly overlooked because of its very of-the-moment production. It isn’t. There are some songs I genuinely enjoy here, such as the flamenco guitar-accented “Footprints,” “Press” and “Move Over Busker.” There is a solid EP lurking among these 10 tracks. The problem with the rest is that despite help from 10cc’s Eric Stewart, the songwriting simply isn’t that strong. McCartney was wise to bring in Elvis Costello as a songwriting partner for his next album, Flowers in the Dirt. I didn’t pay much for Press to Play so I don’t feel badly about owning it, but all but the most dedicated McCartney fans can press skip instead.

Sonny Rollins – Next Album (1972) Jazz albums from the 1970s can be a dicey proposition. One never knows how much synthesizer or slap/fretless bass will be involved. Fortunately, Sonny Rollins plays to his strengths on Next Album. For the most part, Rollins plays in an acoustic four-piece setting. Opening number “Playin’ in the Yard” is the only track to feature electric bass and electric piano. It’s also the only time Next Album sounds of the moment, but anyone who enjoyed Joe Zawinul’s tenure with Cannonball Adderly will feel right at home. Later, “The Everywhere Calypso” lives up to its name with a fun Caribbean beat. The absolute high point is a 10-minute version of “Skylark” that closes the album. The band gradually fades away during the performance, leaving Rollins to play unaccompanied for several blissful minutes.

DJ Shadow – Endtroducing (1996) The Bay-area DJ’s first album is the one to which all of his other releases will be compared. None of the songs on this all-instrumental album made the charts, but “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” has appeared in several commercials. You would probably recognize the haunting piano line if you heard it. The spacey “Midnight in a Perfect World” is another favorite. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes “Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2” is the centerpiece of the album. It starts with a harp refrain before building into a hard drum attack (with strings). It eventually settles back down into something almost ambient. If Brian Eno ever tried to create dance music, it might sound a lot like this. Whenever someone says that sampling isn’t music, I hold up Endtroducing as an emphatic counterargument. Then walk away, because arguing about what constitutes music, much like arguing about authenticity or what is or isn’t a sport, is a waste of time. And I’d rather be listening to music than quarreling about it.

Toots and the Maytals – Funky Kingston (1975) Reggae pioneer Toots Hibberts’ first album for Island Records is so strong you might be forgiven for thinking you are listening to a greatest hits album. Many of his biggest – and best – songs are here: “Funky Kingston,” “Time Tough,” “Pressure Drop” (later covered by the Clash, the Specials and Keith Richards) and a delightful cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads” (with West Jamaica standing in for West Virginia). Hibbert’s singing has always been filled with as much soul and gospel as reggae. His joyous vocals go a long way toward making these great songs even more infectious.

Junior Walker and the All Stars – Shotgun (1965) Junior Walker recorded nearly 20 albums for Motown, but this is really the only one you need. From the title song to Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “(I’m a) Roadrunner” to the infectious “Shake and Fingerpop,” Shotgun not only contains Junior Walker’s best-known tunes, but a deep well of great album tracks as well. “Shoot Your Shot” could be “Shotgun”’s cousin, complete with dance steps. “Cleo’s Mood” steps away from the template and sounds like a Leiber-Stoller revival. When you see Shotgun, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger. You know you need this.

Happy Clash-mas Eve

 (Above: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros delight in performing Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every Christmas Eve, a significant block of time is set aside to honor the late Joe Strummer, who died on Dec. 22, 2002. This year, The Daily Record celebrates Strummer’s lifelong love of reggae music.

The Clash – “Pressure Drop”

Joe Strummer – “The Harder They Come”

Joe Strummer and Jimmy Cliff – “Over the Border”

In the early days of the London punk scene, DJ/filmmaker/musician Don Letts played reggae albums at the famed Roxy Club. At first the reggae was a necessity – the punk scene was still too young for any of the bands to record their own material. But even after the punk catalog exploded, the reggae remained.

“The punks were digging on the old anti-establishment chant down Babylon (attitude), heavy bass lines and they didn’t mind the weed,” Letts told Mojo magazine in 2008.

Not that this was many of the punks’ first exposure to the Jamaican genres.

“People like (Joe) Strummer, (John) Lydon and (Paul) Simonon didn’t need Don Letts to turn them on,” Letts said in the same interview.

Jimmy Cliff in "The Harder They Come."

Strummer, Simonon and the remaining members of the Clash likely stumbled upon Toots and the Maytalls’ “Pressure Drop” shortly after its 1972 release on the soundtrack to “The Harder They Come.” Both the film and the soundtrack had a profound influence on Strummer. In 1977 the band covered “Pressure Drop,” which was released in 1979 as the b-side to “English Civil War.” The title of their second album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” borrows the style of “The Harder They Come” by introducing a well-known phrase and letting the second half remain implied (i.e. “… and they’ll hang themselves”).

“Safe European Home,” one of the tracks on “Rope,” not only name checks “The Harder They Come,” but borrows the phrase “Rudie can’t fail” from another reggae song, foreshadowing the band’s biggest foray into the ska/Two-Tone sound. Finally, Strummer borrowed the film plot of “The Harder They Come” and adapted it to his British punk interpretation titled “Rude Boy.”

Two decades after the release of “Rude Boy,” Strummer recorded his own version of “The Harder They Come.” Teaming with the Long Beach Dub All-Stars and U.K. reggae singer Tippa Irie, his cover was released on the 2000 benefit album “Free the West Memphis Three.” Strummer’s interpretation doesn’t alter much from Jimmy Cliff’s original, but he’s clearly having a great time. Strummer thought enough of the song that another recording of the song was posthumously released the b-side to “Coma Girl.” Recorded live with the Strummer’s final band, the Mescaleros, this version is taken at a faster tempo and joyously ragged and raw.

At one of his final recording sessions, Strummer finally got to collaborate with Cliff. Upon learning where Cliff was recording his latest album, Strummer showed up with some unfinished lyrics in hand that he felt Cliff should sing. “Over the Border,” the song that grew out of this partnership appeared on Cliff’s 2004 album “Black Magic.”

Cliff described the session with Gibson.com shortly before his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

“The two of them (producer Dave Stewart and Strummer) began playing guitar, and I came up with the melody, and then Joe chipped in with some help on the melody as well,” Cliff said. “We recorded the song right away. That was a really special moment for me. You can imagine the shock I felt after hearing that Joe was not with us anymore.”

Keep reading:

Happy Clash-mas Eve (2009)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (2008)

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Original Wailers keep promise to Bob Marley

 

Concert review: Toots and the Maytals

toots-and-the-maytals

The Kansas City Star

By Joel Francis

Toots and the Maytals rocked the Folly Theatre with a righteous rain of reggae in what has to be the first-ever Easter Saturday sunset service.

Toots Hibbert, his five-piece band and two female singers testified for two hours with the union of gospel and soul converted into groundbreaking reggae that had the near-capacity crowd dancing in the aisles, clapping on command and reveling in the spirit.

They didn’t waste any time getting to the good stuff. The opener, “Pressure Drop,” steamrolled right into classics like “Time Tough,” “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pump and Pride.”

Hibbert worked the crowd with the fervor of an evangelist with his energetic delivery and call and responses. The show was the fourth installment of “Cypress Avenue Live at the Folly,” and was its most successful to date.

The entire evening was a delight, but the highlights were a cover of “Country Roads Take Me Home,” and “54-46 Was My Number,” the final song of the night. The gospel moments, like the intro to “Country Roads Take Me Home” and the spiritual medley near the end of the main set had everyone singing, dancing and testifying.

The only blemish on an otherwise inspired evening was that Hibbert’s voice was difficult to hear all night. Shouts of “turn it up” resonated from the balcony, there was little the sound engineer could do to make Hibbert hold his microphone above chest level.

That his mic captured as much as it did is a testament to Hibbert’s powerful delivery. Before the show, one person mused how the show would work at the Folly, a space with limited room for dancing. He thought the Maytals were better suited for a venue like the Uptown.

He may have been right, but the staid surroundings didn’t stop anyone from having a great time. If they didn’t make it up in time for Easter services, one might understand: They’d already been taken to church.

Set list: Pressure Drop; Time Tough; Sweet and Dandy; Reggae Got Soul; Pump and Pride; Never Get Weary Yet; Bam Bam; Peeping Tom; Broadway Jungle; Country Roads (Take Me Home); Funky Kingston; True Love Is Hard To Find; Treat Me Good; Medley: It Was Written Down/Shining Light/Amen; Monkey Man. Encores: Love Gonna Walk Out On Me; Roots, Rock Reggae (jam); 54-46 Was My Number.