Two decades ago, new albums from D’Angelo, Van Morrison, Wynonna, Kelis and others were spinning away in my portable CD player. Here’s what I had to say about them back then (with some minor editing):
R&B vocalist D’Angelo is a man who takes his sweet time. That much is clear from the five-year lag between his debut Brown Sugar and this followup. It’s also the way he goes about his business on Voodoo, a fittingly magical and spellbinding groovefest. Settling into a midtempo, silk-sheet vibe, the love man born Michael Archer and a host of guests (Roots drummer Questlove, guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, rappers Method Man and Redman) slo-jam their way through 13 stretched-out tracks of dank, delicious old-school R&B, reincarnated exactly as Sly, P-Funk, Stevie, Al, Marvin and the squiggle formerly known as Prince did it back in the day — with plenty of bump, grind and pleading falsettos, and without a James Brown sample, a dumb skit or a dance-mix single anywhere in sight. As long as D’Angelo can keep pulling off tricks like this, he can take all the time he wants.
The Skiffle Sessions
Back before Beatlemania overtook Britain, the sound of the day was skiffle, a blend of Yankee rockabilly, blues and folk, played on acoustic guitars and heavy on the driving locomotive backbeat. And with hits like Rock Island Line and Don’t You Rock Me, Daddio, Lonnie Donegan was skiffle’s king, inspiring countless young musicians — including one Belfast lad named George Ivan Morrison. Four decades later, Van the Man repays the debt and comes full circle, joining Donegan and longtime bassist Chris Barber on this enchanting live set. Loose and laid-back, these tracks have all the spontaneity and exuberance of a great late-night jam, with the trio calling tunes — and the keys to play in — on the fly, trading off verses and generally having a swell old time revisiting traditional faves from Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene to Frankie and Johnny. Simply superb.
Remember that music video you saw starring that woman with the mushroom cloud of red curls primal-screaming, “I hate you so much right now!” over a funky backbeat? No, it’s not the new Tori Amos video. It’s American singer Kelis, and the heavy-rotation hip-hop cut is called Caught Out There. But don’t be caught thinking shrieking is all that’s in store if you pick up her debut long-player Kaleidoscope. True to its title, it’s less volatile and more colourful and playful — although no less distinctive. Kelis Rogers certainly has a flair for the unusual; switching between huskily voiced hip-hop and bratty rap over a blueprint of neck-snapping urban funk, she tosses off weird tales of futuristic UFO nookie, roller-rink romance and how her love is like the Mafia (“Sealed in blood and Corleone kisses … For you I will testify”). Sounds like a hit. A mob hit.
New Day Dawning
In a world of cookie-cutter country cuties, brassy, big-boned Judd daughter Wynonna has always stood out from the pack as a rebel who does things her own way. Sadly, her new album New Day Dawning shows there’s a fine line between rebelling and shooting yourself in the foot. It’s one thing for Wynonna to augment her usual slate of honky-tonk rockers and overblown ballads with, say, the juke-joint jive of The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Tuff Enuff (complete with top T-Bird Kim Wilson on blues harp). But it’s a whole ‘nother thang for her to go messin’ with Aretha-style R&B (as she does on the Chain of Fools ripoff Chain Reaction) or to cover the likes of Joni Mitchell (with a pointless retread of Help Me) and hip-hop diva Macy Gray (who does an infinitely better version of I Can’t Wait to Meet You on her own album). As Wynonna sings herself, “who am I trying to fool?” Who, indeed.
What You See
As the story goes, former Mississippi cabbie and semi-trucker James Johnson earned his fowl nickname for his speed behind the wheel. Well, he may have given up the workaday road for a musical one, but as his sleek, winning sophomore CD shows, he’s kept on trucking. What you get on What You See are 10 sides of southern-fried country-blues, with Johnson laying down groove after groove of funky, soulful R&B, topped by his slick, skillful guitar lines and wild, freewheeling vocals. Sometimes he’s as clean and clear as Otis Redding; at other times he’s more like Andre Williams or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins jamming with John Lee Hooker in a New Orleans bordello during Mardi Gras. Either way, this is one funky chikan.
Play It To The Bone
Sure, title bouts are the glamourous pinnacle of boxing. But any fight fan will tell you the real action is often found on the undercard, when hungry young scrappers try to clamber their way to the top by walloping each other into oblivion. That’s the type of boxer Woody Harrelson and (don’t laugh) Antonio Banderas play in this flick, as well as the sort of artist found on this soundtrack — middleweight contenders such as Fishbone (the funkadelic opener Shakey Ground) and Los Lobos (the off-kilter serenade Corazon). Factor in a one-two combination of blues and gospel (Kirk Franklin’s joyous hip-hopper Gonna Be a Lovely Day leads into B.B. King and Joe Cocker’s devilish Dangerous Mood; Linda Jackson’s I Must Tell Jesus introduces John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom), and Play It to the Bone wins on points.
This soundtrack to the Winona Ryder–Angelina Jolie flick suffers from its own split personality disorder. The first 10 tracks are ’60s and ’70s classics from the likes of Petula Clark (Downtown), Van Morrison (It’s All Over Now Baby Blue), The Band (The Weight), and Jefferson Airplane (Comin’ Back to Me), along with one more recent gem from Wilco (the ironic How to Fight Loneliness). So far, so good. But the disc’s back half — Mychael Danna’s original score, featuring 19 (count ’em) tracks of orchestral gloom, suicidal guitars and anxiety-attack strings — kills the mood faster than an OD at a birthday party. Call it soundtrack, interrupted.
Absolutely the Best
These days, they’re mostly a Rock ‘n’ Roll Jeopardy question (“What is Time of The Season?”), but for a brief time back in the swinging ’60s, The Zombies were seen as potential heirs to The Beatles. With She’s Not There, they became the first post-Fab U.K. band to hit No. 1 in America. Sadly, their well-crafted, keyboard-heavy brand of sophisticated blues-pop never really took off on these shores. But as this competent, no-frills collection makes clear, it wasn’t for lack of quality. From baroquely jazzy pop hits such as Tell Her No to more obscure fare, these tracks still stand up — as you’d expect from zombies.
A Canadian Tribute
Elvis’s musical abilities may be debatable, but there’s no doubt about his legacy: He remains the King of repackaging. Decades after going to that big Graceland in the sky, the collections just keep on coming. Or, in the case of A Canadian Tribute, coming back. This high-concept comp — his hits from 1957 (the year he played Canada), supplemented with Elvis tracks written by Canadians — was issued on vinyl in 1978. Now, since even Presley fans presumably have CD players, it debuts on disc. Along with the oldies and goodies (All Shook Up, Teddy Bear), there’s the illuminating (a 20-minute, lighthearted press conference from his Vancouver show, and two other period interviews) and the unusual (Elvis covering Snowbird, Put Your Hand in the Hand and Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain). If that doesn’t leave you all shook up, nothing will.
Elliott Sharp: Tectonics
This downtown New York jazz futurist may come armed with a self-designed eight-string “guitarbass,” but Elliott Sharp isn’t out to be a guitar hero. At least, not in the normal sense. On Errata, as on his previous outings, he’s obviously less interested in pulling off wanky, shredding solos than he is creating bizarre new musical hybrids. And E#, as he refers to himself, has enough inventiveness to keep the patent registry burning the midnight oil. Free-jazz skronk, squirrely beatboxes, dense electronic atmospherics, Afro-Cuban percussion, static, noise, and even bagpipes all go into the pot, simmering into a tasty concoction suggesting the earlier, quirkier work of Steve Vai or the later, Jazz From Hell-era Frank Zappa. No matter what he thinks, that sounds pretty heroic.
Robbie McIntosh Band
Ace session guitarist and former Pretenders sideman Robbie McIntosh has long been one of the fastest and sharpest hired guns in the biz — just spin his staccato, chiming solo in Middle of the Road if you need proof. And his debut solo disc, Emotional Bends, makes it abundantly clear why he’s so much in demand to back artists from Paul McCartney and Joe Cocker to Cher and Celine: He has virtually no musical personality of his own. This tremendous disappointment consists of a dozen toothless country-blues and roots-rock throwaways, with McIntosh making like a poor man’s Ry Cooder as a cadre of his session-man cohorts groove with too much precision and too little passion. Aside from McIntosh’s always-wondrous playing, Emotional Bends flatlines.
Phat Global #1
If we really do live in a global village, than hip-hop is the true world music. In little more than two decades, the sounds, styles and stances of African-American musical culture have spread across the planet, cross-pollinating with every genre of sound from Indian sitars to acoustic guitars. This wide-ranging and ever-expanding sound is documented on Phat Global #1, album tracks and remixes from Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures label. Think of it as a travelogue to the hip-hop world — from the Bollywood-meets-Beastie-Boys vibe of Indian Ropeman to Sly and Robbie’s deep-dish dub-reggae, from the French rap of Cheb Mami to the South American folk of Manu Chao, each of these exotic tracks dances to the beat of a funky drummer. Turns out it’s a Phat world after all.