Archives for category: Music Reviews

Album Review: Boy, RAC (Counter Records, May 8 2020)

RAC or Remix Artists Collective is the stage name of André Allen Anjos, a Portland Oregon based artist who started out remixing songs and became a recording artist in his own right. RAC’s last full length album, Ego (Counter 2017) featured a beautiful track that was in my top five that year, “Heavy” featuring Anjos’ long-time collaborator Karl Kling. RAC’s last outing, the Closer EP from 2018, used much quieter and simpler piano arrangements, creating a more cinematic vibe.

Boy offers synth pop, heartfelt ballads, and quite a range of styles in between. Overall, the album and indeed most of RAC’s original work evokes the brighter side of the 80s synth pop. Whenever I listen to RAC, I get the urge to listen to “Together In Electric Dreams” by Human League’s Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder.

“Oakland” featuring the Winnetka Bowling League is a lilting tune that could have been used in a John Hughes coming-of-age montage. “Together” featuring Evalyn, demonstrates Anjos’ ability to blend synth pop with contemporary R&B production choices a la Drake and his Ovo label sound.

Boy has a more melancholic side as well, with tracks like “Solo,” “Boomerang,” and probably my favourite cut at the moment, “Sweater” featuring Maddie Jay.

 

Related Listening: 

Feature: 20 Albums 

A friend of mine nominated me on facebook to post 20 album covers in 20 days of albums that really had an impact on me. While I’m not big on facebook chain letters, I do find the idea inviting so I thought I’d explore it here instead.

Here we go in no particular order…

Live at the Bijou, Grover Washington Jr. (Kudu, 1977)

First heard in the late 80’s on Paul E. Lopez and Mike Tull’s excellent radio program, Vibes & Stuff on CIUT 89.5FM, the track “Funkfoot” immediately struck me as a perfect combination of jazz and funk. It took years for me to find the record and it remains in high rotation for me to this day.

 

Arias & Symphonies, The Spoons (Ready, 1982)

This album was released in 1982 as I was just awakening to my own musical consciousness and taste. I became a faithful fan of this local band for a good part of 40 years. This album in particular set the bar for me when it came to 80’s new wave. In an older post, I dare to argue that it was the best album of the 80’s.

 

My Ever Changing Moods (Cafe Bleu), The Style Council (Polydor, 1984)

In adolescence, we all look for “our thing.” In the 80’s, cliques formed around musical taste. There was the Duran Duran bunch, the Pink Floyd bunch, The Cure bunch and so on. Like many teenagers, I fancied myself an original and adopted this enigmatic and short-lived group that sprung out of The Jam and the rise of Brit soul. The Style Council was my gateway to jazz, a genre that influences virtually all music I listen to today.

 

Places and Spaces, Donald Byrd (Blue Note, 1975)

I just love the sound Donald Byrd cultivated in his long partnership with producers Fonce and Larry Mizell (a.k.a. the Mizell Brothers). They created a body of work in the 70’s that bridged jazz and popular music. This album is the apex of that sound and is definitely on my desert island list.

 

Headhunters, Herbie Hancock (Columbia, 1973)

I first heard the opening riff of “Chameleon” when i was in my 8th grade brass band at school. The 9th grade stage band (the cool kids) were warming up and the bassist started playing the iconic clavinet line from this seminal album. Herbie Hancock is one of my musical heroes and I’ve been fortunate to see him live on a couple of occasions.

 

 

Togethering, Kenny Burrell & Grover Washington Jr. (Blue Note, 1985)

This is one of those records I owned on cassette and listened to so much, it wore out. By the time the CD revolution came around, the album was out of print. Years later, I bought the vinyl on Discogs and digitized it. It still appears to be out of print at Blue Note and maybe was never highly regarded but Burrell’s and Washington’s virtuosity and chemistry sealed it as one of my all-time favourite jazz records.

Minute by Minute, The Doobie Brothers (Warner Bros., 1978)

I was never a rocker and was generally unaware of country and folk rock growing up. This album was in my sister’s collection and was The Doobie Brothers’ foray into an R&B sound. I still love the lush keyboards, Michael McDonald’s vocals, and the songwriting.

 

 

Brown Sugar, D’Angelo (EMI, 1995)

This album was my introduction to R&B and more specifically neo soul. It opened a new appreciation for me for R&B from every decade prior and since.

 

 

Baduizm, Erykah Badu (Kedar, 1997)

If D’Angelo introduced me to R&B, Erykah Badu locked me in as an eternal fan. This album has become my yardstick for songwriting, style, and performance for an R&B record.

 

 

Lover’s Rock, Sade (Epic, 2000)

Sade was huge in the 1980’s but I was too preoccupied with new wave to take them seriously. By the time this album dropped, I was all in. It was also a treat seeing them live in 2011.

 

 

Brother Sister, The Brand New Heavies  (Delicious Vinyl, 1994)

This group introduced me to “Acid Jazz.” As a genre, it is still illusive to define but The Brand New Heavies merged pop, jazz, and soul to form what would be coined as Acid Jazz. Ambitious multi-instrument arrangements and dance-influenced beats won me over. It wasn’t until later in life that I came to appreciate Earth, Wind, and Fire as the pioneers and all-time masters of this sound.

 

The Renaissance, Q-Tip (Motown, 2008)

This is the album that developed my taste in hip hop. Q-Tip remains one of my favourite hip hop artists. I loved the merger of R&B and hip hop on this record. Because of this record, I devoured A Tribe Called Quest’s back catalogue. Incidentally, this album is produced by the late, great J Dilla, another artist I discovered much later in life.

 

Tribes, Vibes, and Scribes, Incognito (Talkin’ Loud, 1992)

I think I heard the instrumental track, “Colibri” from this album used in a TV show and I sought it out. Incognito has a knack for songwriting and jazz performances that draw the best from R&B, Funk, and Dance genres. They are my favourite band today and this album was what brought me to them.

 

Return of the Space Cowboy, Jamiroquai (Sony, 1994)

Probably my favourite group in the 90’s (after Incognito). I think this is still their best album.

 

 

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi Trio (Fantasy, 1965)

I think one of the most perfect recordings I’ve heard to this day is the instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here.” The tune and the simple but enchanting treatment by this talented trio never gets old for me.

 

 

The Music Man Original Soundtrack, Meredith Willson (Warner Bros., 1962)

A guilty pleasure, yes but also a remarkable musical book. Not only are the show tunes among the most playful and enduring from that era, Willson weaves a clever consistency among the songs. The interplay during “Lida Rose / Will I Ever Tell You” is a wonderful example.

 

 

Reggae Hits, Volume 24, Various Artists (Jet Star, 1999)

In the mid 90’s, a friend of mine introduced me to the expanse of reggae music. Before then, Bob Marley was all I knew. This compilation, random though it seems, was a perfect sampling and I grew my reggae collection prodigiously from what inspired me on this record.

 

 

Heavy Weather, Weather Report (Columbia, 1977)

I was a band nerd in high school, so yeah, this album. Still holds up today as one of the finest jazz fusion albums ever. Wayne Shorter and Josef Zawinul are both disciples of Miles Davis.

 

 

 

Glengarry Glen Ross, Music From and Inspired by The Motion Picture, James Newton Howard (Elektra, 1992)

One of my favourite films and one of my favourite albums. Wayne Shorter’s genius permeates the soundscape of the film. This was another album that I wore out on cassette. It was hard to find on CD but I found a Japanese version and it is one the most coveted in my collection.

 

 

Blade Runner Soundtrack, Vangelis (Atlantic, 1994)

This is my favourite film and one of the reasons is the music. I don’t think there has ever been a film that so effectively melds music, mood, and story.

 

 

 

 

Album Review: It Is What It Is, Thundercat (Brainfeeder, April 2020)

Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Bruner) is a widely respected bassist, songwriter, and performer. His debut album, Golden Age of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder) in 2011, launched his solo career. Since then, he has released two studio albums and is featured in numerous collaborations with the likes of Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar, and the late Mac Miller.

It Is What It Is marks a return in a way to his breakthrough debut. The melody, vocals, and songwriting make for perhaps his most accessible album. Unlike Apocalypse (Brainfeeder, 2013) and Drunk (Brainfeeder 2017), this release features several full-length tracks with more conventional structures and production choices. It should be noted, “conventional” in the context of a Thundercat record is still delightfully several degrees askew.

The first single, “Dragonball Durag” showcases what I mean on melody and songwriting. Bruner has cultivated a signature sound with his falsetto vocals and playful production choices grounded in a velvety low end. There’s an AOR vibe about this record. “Black Qualls” disguises complex arrangements and song structure in a thoroughly enjoyable 3-minute song.

Bruner’s frenzied solo prowess and his signature Thundercat bass sound are showcased on “How Sway” and “Unrequited Love.” “King of The Hill” is a particularly original track, alternatively haunting and soothing.

Thundercat can always be counted on to bring something new to the intersection of funk, jazz, and R&B. With It Is What It Is, he delivers in his weirdly groovy way.

Album Review: Beautiful Vinyl Hunter, Ashley Henry (Sony Music, September 2019)

Beautiful Vinyl Hunter is Ashley Henry’s debut full-length album. Having just celebrated his 28th birthday, Henry has produced an album rich beyond his years.

Listening end to end, three modes emerge on this album. Contemporary piano jazz leads off with “STAR CHILD” featuring Judi Jackson on vocals. Jackson also appears on “Lullaby (Rise and Shine),” which sounds like it came out of the Cole Porter songbook. “Cranes (In the Sky)” is an upbeat piano jazz anthem, not unlike something you might hear from Shaun Martin. My favourite track in the jazz mode of this album is “Ahmed.” The melody, rhythm, and improvisation stand up to repeated listens and remind you why the piano is perhaps the most expansive instrument in jazz music.

Henry’s second mode is hip hop, with tracks like “Between the Lines” featuring Keyon Harrold and “COLORS” featuring Joshua Idehen. They meld seamlessly into the album’s soundscape, ever decorated by Henry’s keyboard work.

The third mode is electric. Henry plays a Rhodes electric piano for tracks like “Introspection” and “Dark Honey (4thestorm),” echoing atmospheric 1970s fusion.

Already in his young career, Ashley Henry has cultivated a sound and shown us he knows how to use a range of collaborations and styles to create an irresistible work.

 

 

Album Reviews:

CASE STUDY 01, Daniel Caesar (Golden Child Recordings, June 2019)

Love’s Last Chance, Taylor McFerrin (FromHereEntertainment, August 2019)

 

 

 

 

These two albums took a hold of me recently. Daniel Caesar’s CASE STUDY 01 is a powerful album, rich with well-crafted songs, minimalist production, and Caesar’s distinctive vocal performance. Taylor McFerrin’s Love’s Last Chance is a marvel of songwriting, sprinkled with electronic production that evokes the work of Flying Lotus a.k.a Steven Ellison. Ellison’s Brainfeeder label put out Mcferrin’s debut album, Early Riser (Brainfeeder, 2014) so the influence is happily expected.

Both are sophomore albums and both are from young male R&B vocalists who have distinguished themselves stylistically with their production choices. A Yin and Yang if you will, of modern urban music: Caesar with an acoustic sensibility, McFerrin an electronic one, both uncompromising in their songwriting.

McFerrin’s “Now that you need me” features multiple synth sounds, beats, and vocal effects that electrify the vibe while the melody and soul of the song keep it grounded. Caesar’s “Too deep to turn back” is simultaneously an acoustic sing-along, a sullen ballad, and just plain beautiful. These two tracks are the most striking examples of what characterizes each album but there is of course, a spectrum within each.

I think that’s why these albums appealed to me as a pair, rather than individually. They swirl around together, not quite dissolving into one another but playing off their differences, elevating each other.

Album Review: North Side of Linden, West Side of Slauson, Salaam Remi & Terrace Martin (Flying Buddha Records / Louder Than Life Records)

I’ve been following Terrace Martin since his Velvet Portraits album (Ropeadope, 2016) so when I came across this project with highly decorated hip-hop producer and keyboardist Salaam Remi, I had to give it a quick listen. Twenty-four minutes later, I hit repeat.

The album has a nightime jazz vibe, driven by hip-hop beats, coloured by Remi’s keys and Martin’s reeds. Remi and Martin showcase a variety of sounds, from the broad-spectrum opener, “Carrot Juice” to the organ-infused “ChickenNWaffles Baptist Church” to the sparse and trancey “Sativa Park.”

What makes this album work so well is the combination of beats, Remi and Martin’s improvisation, and the production choices, which are the sharpest around in jazz and hip-hop.

Make time for this album. Leave room for replays.

Related:

Terrace Martin Presents the Pollyseeds: Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1

Album Review: New Day New World, Spoons (Sparks Music, 2019)

This is the Spoons’ first studio release since Static in Transmission (All My People, 2011). From the opening piano intro on the title track to the broken electronic beats bookending this album in the title’s reprise, New Day New World emits a kind of magic.

The Spoons posess an alchemy that has endured through their 40 history: the interplay between Gord Deppe’s and Sandy Horne’s vocals; the edgy guitar; and most of all the synthesized soundscape born in the 80s and ably refreshed with each outing. There is also solid songwriting on this album with chart worthy pop songs, thoughtful down tempo numbers like “Life on Demand” and “Landing Lights,” and the wonderfully synth-laden “Snowglobes.”

An early fan favourite is “For the First and the Last Time.” It is a charming melody with a love song at its heart – bottled happiness. A clever variation on the same tune is “Paint by Numbers Day,” with Horne taking the lead on vocals.

I’ve been a fan of the Spoons since I heard Arias & Symphonies for the first time. I spent my adolescent years adoring the band and their sound. It is exceptionally satisfying, so many years later, to hear such an objectively good and entirely fresh album from start to finish.

I’ll be marvelling at this new magic for some time.

 

The Players: Gordon Deppe (guitar, vocals), Sandy Horne (bass guitar, vocals), Casey MQ (keyboards), Chris McNeill (drums)

 

Related Posts

Best Album of the 80’s: Arias & Symphonies

Arias & Symphonies 30th Anniversary Concert

Static in Transmission

Toronto Retrograde: A Geo Nostalgic Playlist

Album Review: Circle, Phil France (Gondwana, August 2018)

Phil France is a UK-based producer and musician known for his work with The Cinematic Orchestra, most notably their soundtrack for the nature documentary, The Crimson Wing (Walt Disney Studios, 2008).

He also likes circles. His bandcamp page explains the concept behind this album as one that uses circular musical structures to echo a more universal notion of “unity, strength, and inclusiveness.”

With Circle, France uses mostly electronic arrangements that loop, meander, and overlap, having an almost narcotic effect on the listener. Curiously, the album’s two most acoustic tracks, “Circle (reprise)” and “The Breaks” are its most enchanting.

France is said to be inspired by the likes of Vangelis and Philip Glass. Indeed, this album evokes Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack (Atlantic, 1994), not for its sonic similarity but for its immersive quality. With his compositions and arrangements, France creates a place you don’t wish to leave – a place wherein you’d rather revel in the music, round and round in circles.

 

 

 

Album Review: Focus, Shaun Martin (Ropeadope, July 2018)

I liked Shaun Martin the instant I heard his first chord. His debut 7 Summers album (Ropeadope, 2015) is still one of my favourite piano jazz recordings. Martin has a majestic compositional and musical style. There’s something sweeping and “American” about his sound – a hint of Aaron Copeland.

In Focus, Martin delivers jazz piano in a more conventional trio framework while retaining his knack for rhythm and pleasing chords. This record, more than his last, oozes patience and evokes the touch of a pianist like Ahmad Jamal. To wit, Martin’s version of “Body and Soul” is as classical a rendering of that standard as one can imagine. “Festina Lente” is more grand, bridging contemporary and smooth jazz. “Ms Genell” is an easy-going and bluesy number, named for his grandmother.

Martin writes on his bandcamp page, “this album reminds me to focus on the purity of the instruments and the authenticity of music.” With Focus, he’s achieved this for himself and for the listener.

 

The Players: Shaun Martin (piano), Jamil Byrom (drums), AJ Brown (double bass); On “Focus,” Keith Taylor (bass), Robert ‘Sput’ Searight (drums)

Concert Review: Herbie Hancock, Toronto, June 29 2018, Sony Centre for the Performing Arts

L to R: Herbie Hancock, Lionel Loueke, Trevor Lawrence Jr., James Genus (photo by author)

What’s constantly impressive about Herbie Hancock is his ability to innovate. A full 6 decades into his career, his forward momentum has never dragged. His June 29 show in Toronto was no exception.

Hancock opened with not so much a tune as a sonic sculpture. Layering, bending, crescendoing, Hancock reminded the audience that he is a pioneer of synthesized music. He had told the audience he would take us on “a journey.” By the end of his opener, we had taken flight.

Lionel Loueke was on guitar that night in his inimitable way, crafting sounds with his effects pedals that blurred the lines between keyboard, guitar, and horns. It reminded me of a passage I read in Hancock’s autobiography wherein he chose a clavinet for his Headhunters ensemble, partly to avoid the need for a guitar. With Loueke’s innovations, Hancock has come full circle, electing to play the acoustic piano while Loueke rocked the spacier effects of the evening. The flipside to Loueke’s presence was the conspicuous absence of Terrace Martin, who had been touring with Hancock until his recent departure for a European tour for one of his other projects. Although I would have liked to see Martin on keys and saxophone, I would not change anything about the show that ultimately materialized.

The performance was deep with delight. Hancock enchanted everyone in the place with his music, his virtuosity, and his disarming affability. Seeing Hancock for the first time qualified as a bucket list checkmark for me. Now that I’ve experienced him live, I realize one doesn’t satisfy a jonesing for Herbie Hancock’s performances. One can only relish them in the moment because they will never be the same again.

 

Setlist (from Setlist.fm)

  • Overture
  • Actual Proof
  • Come Running to Me
  • Secret Source
  • (unknown)
  • Cantaloupe Island
  • Encore: Chamaeleon

 

The Players: Herbie Hancock (piano, keyboard, keytar), James Genus (bass guitar), Trevor Lawrence Jr. (drums), Lionel Loueke (guitar)

 

Further Reading:

Playlist Review of Hancock’s autobiography, Possibilities (Viking, 2014)

Best of 2017, including Trevor Lawrence’s solo album, Relationships (Ropeadope, 2017)

Review of Terrace Martin’s last album, Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1 (Ropeadope, 2017)