Artists like to be able to release albums at the end of the year, in order to cash in on holiday sales and to carry on throughout the new year. One album that fans have been anticipating is the brand new one from Mary J. Blige, Growing Pains (Geffen). I'll be honest, Mary has not released an album that has come close to her masterpiece, 1994's My Life, although to her credit she has gained a lot more fans in the last 13 yeas from being the self-proclaimed queen of hip-hop soul. Maybe it's the realization that Blige will never be able to hit the emotions she once had during My Life, and as she has said many times since then, she is a very different person. Her Mary album came close to being something unique and different from what came before, although some fans claimed that it was a sell-out tactic, her "white" album.
So what to make of Growing Pains? The title is a hint, she speaks as someone who is still going through the motions, finding life is still not paved with gold, and that while love can be a glorious thing, sometimes one has to go through the pain in order to make it through to the other side. Is this the album fans have been waiting for? Not quite. Songs like "Work That", "Feel Like A Woman", "Stay Down", and "Till The Morning" display some of the strengths that make Blige who she is as a singer, but by doing so, it still shows many of her limitations. She can belt it, but it rarely (if ever) goes any further than the initial burst of energy. The topics tend to be the same old thing we've heard before, and while one might argue there's so many ways of saying "I love you" or "I miss you", if one was to listen to the the songs on here that are sub-par, it seems she's running out of steam and resorts to extending the end of a word to show that she has style of grace. That's not style or grace, that's filling in the dead space. The music is alright, and her singing is okay, but the songs are just not up to her own standards.
But when the songs work, they work brilliantly, take for example the track she did with Ludacris, "Grown Woman". She's saying that she's a firecracker ready to explode, and that the cops will not be able to keep her down. She does this over an interpolated Funkadelic-ish beat, and the attitude is brash. It goes back to when she celebrated hip-hop to the fullest, but it's that of a woman who knows her place as an artist and what she had to do to get here. Ludacris drops his verse, and while I'm normally a Luda fan, sometimes his verse seems unnecessary. One of my favorite songs on here is when she makes a successful attempt at a pop record. "Smoke" has a nice Coldplay aura about it, and the interesting thing about it is that she sounds comfortable, her singing isn't forced and it has the potential to cross her over to an audience that may have otherwise ignored her for the last 15 years. When she sings and I procrastinated for only reasons I know/but I'm afraid to ask the mirror, the answers may sting, it seems like something that's too deep, but then you realize who you're listening to. This is that woman who can tap deep into herself, which in turn helps reveal a side of us (the listener) that might be too afraid to open up in such a manner. The album closes with "Come To Me (Peace)", where it's one part spiritual, one part emotional, looking for some kind of guidance in a world that at times seems a bit misguided. She takes it home here, and it helps make a so-so album decent enough to listen to one more time.
I would have preferred stronger songs in the vein of "Grown Woman", "Smoke", "Come To Me (Peace)", and "Shake Down", the latter a duet with Usher. The idea that this is just "another Mary album" doesn't cut it, she deserves better than this. It will suit those who have been fans of her music for the last few years. It does not capture the joy and pain of her first two albums, at least not the first half of Growing Pains, but by the second half she shows that she is capable of bringing herself up to the standard she once made for herself.
(Growing Pains will be released on December 18th, and is available through CD Universe.)
When it comes to digging for funk, as any cratedigger will tell you, the more RAER the better. Someone will come across an album that is considered mindblowing, everyone will want to hear it and they place it on their want list. One such album is by a band from Chicago who were called Boscoe, who brought together their love of funk and jazz with the power of Art Ensemble Of Chicago, the perspectives in potential of Sun Ra, and a political tongue that put them up there with some of the best. The band were only able to record one album, which is why it had been highly desired all these years. Thanks to the people at The Numero Group, the album has been reissued for the very first time.
You may listen to this album and feel as if you are either in a state or panic, or as if you've just discovered some long lost family. Either you're welcome or you're not, and part of that has to do with how solid this 6-piece band were. When you hear songs such as "He Keeps You", "Money Won't Save You", and "We Ain't Free", what you are hearing is a band who wanted to be heard and to make serious social and economic change. The liner notes from drummer Kwame Steve Cobb states that he knew they "wouldn't get any traction with a major record label, so we chose to record for our own label." From their own pockets, and fortunately with the assistance of engineer Malcolm Chisholm and producer Joseph Ehrenberg, this album sounds great 34 years after the fact. It doesn't sound primitive or raw, this easily measures up with The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron and Funkadelic, with a power in their playing which says "I can't take this shit, get me to the right people so I can be heard, now!". Bassist Ron Harris gets caught up in the groove to the point where he feels confident enough to groove in his own world, with the band knowing that he'll eventually move right back into the program.
There are a number of records why this album is so highly desired, now you're able to hear all eight of them.
(The Boscoe reissue is available as a CD and as an MP3 download directly from The Numero Group website.)
The Numero Group label have been getting some press for their series of Eccentric Soul compilations, which takes a nice deep dig into the sides of soul and funk that time has forgotten. That is, except for us pesky record collectors who are willing to hunt down every thrift store, garage sale, warehouse, and noodle shop to find those records that have been holding up dishes. The caked up goodies that may or may not have been sampled, may or may not have been used by a British DJ who damages the world with that one holy grail find.
The new CD in the series is called Eccentric Soul: The Outskirts Of Deep City, which takes a brief but in-depth look at a little known label out of Florida called Deep City Records. The label had done a compilation last year, and many felt that this was the cream of the crop. But one discover can lead to another, and sometimes even more. This CD is that "more", as the producers of the compilation were able to find reels of tapes from unknown sources, in boxes that should have been tossed out decades ago. One trail lead to another, and before you know it, there was the discover of other smaller, related labels.
To make a long story short, these sides were all recorded and put together at a time when there was a sense of pride in not only recording music, but wanting to become a part of a growing record industry, where any local music scene could proudly say "we want to be the Stax and Motown of our town". All of these times are solid from start to finish, primarily from the late 60's but with one track going as early as 1963. The compilation features early songs from the likes of Betty Wright and Clarence Reid, plus regional favorites such as Snoopy Dean, James Knight & The Butlers, and Frank Williams & The Rocketeers. Most of these tracks survived very well despite the condition of the tapes. A few of them do sound worn out, but the flaws give the recordings character and who knows, another week or month could have turned these tracks into dust. The Clarence Reid of 1967 sounds nothing like the Reid of 1969 when he did an album for Alston/Atco, and very distant from who he would become as Blowfly. What his songs do show is an incredible talent for songwriting, something he would do for many artists associated with Henry Stone and his long string of affiliated labels. Shades of Blowfly, and perhaps taking a few hints from Pigmeat Markham, lead Reid to put together "Nasty Dog Pt. 2" by The Nasty Dog Catchers. It's a nice dancer, and probably lead a lot of kids back then to do the dog and then some.
Jurassic 5 fans are sure to recognize Lynn Williams' "Don't Be Surprised" instantly, and in many ways becomes this compilation's equivalent of Lorraine Ellison's "Stay With Me" in terms of soulfulness and emotional impact.
The Outskirts Of Deep City has a number of other highlights too, including "Play With Fire Pt. 1" by The Rollers, which was sourced from a very crispy acetate. If you know anything about acetates, if you play a copy more than ten times, the record is "had it". You can tell this record has had better days, but obviously the master tapes no longer exist and this is the only way one will be able to hear this song, with that girl group sound that makes you want to hear it over and over. The liner notes, photographs, and scans of old concert fliers and articles, take this compilation over the top, making it a must-have addition to any fan of rare soul and funk. Everything was nicely designed by my main man David Castillo. Superfresh.
(Eccentric Soul: The Outskirts Of Deep City is available as a CD and as an MP3 download directly from The Numero Group website.)
Japan's EM Records released a great series of surf soundtrack albums earlier this year for the first time on CD. The label, known for digging in the most unpredictable places, have done it again with the release of two CD's that are the start of the labels' new Steel Pan Series
The first one I listened to was Still Around by The Rudy Smith Quartet. Smith was a steel drum musician originally from Trinidad whose musicianship lead him to Europe. A few musicians heard him and said that he had a jazz vibe to his playing. It would lead to him using the steel drums for jazz, and Still Around is the first album he released under his own name.
I have heard my share of jazz albums where they may be the use of an instrument that might be considered "foreign" to the music, be it steel guitar, 'ukulele, or cello. The same applies here, as the band (<Ole Matthiessen on piano, Gilbert Matthews on drums, and Niels Prastholm on bass) gets into a mood that would sound fitting on a Charles Mingus or Wynton Marsalis. The recording is clear and crip, definitely of 1984 vintage, and then Smith begins to play. One hears the steel drums and it may lead to how most people hear the drums. Here, Smith plays with the kind of confidence and grace that comes from having knowledge of his instrument, very much in the vein of Lionel Hampton. The quartet move into a bit of classical with "Be Bach", an original composition that shows their craft in the most brilliant way. Smith is a great improvisational artist, but he can keep to the traditions just as well.
(Still Around is available from Dusty Groove.)
I then listened to an album Smith did in 1971 with The Modern Sound Quintet. Originally released on Odeon/EMI in Finland in 1971 when Smith was living in Sweden, Otinku immediately gives off an Afrocentric vibe from the cover art, the red, black & green graphics, to the photos of the band. The title track could easily be mistaken for a rare Osibisa track, and it's a very moving piece too. Once the group gets that out of the way, they play some intense jazz, as they play their renditions of "Bye Bye Blackbird", "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy", "Bags' Groove", "Softly As In The Morning Sunrise" and "Memphis Underground". These songs are familiar to any jazz fan and collector; what the steel drums do is give it a new and refreshing look and listen, and the band do an incredible job by playing their style of jazz that mixes up American, European, African, and Caribbean influences. It may sound different and distant at the same time, but once you get used to hearing steel drums in a jazz setting, with a group of musicians who are at the top of their game, it makes one hope that EM Records will find more gems like this in the near future.
(Otinku is available from Dusty Groove.)
...AND NOW, SOME STUFFS
I do a weekly podcast, or what I would prefer to call a digital broadcast, called Book's Music. The broadcasts are as diverse as this column, and at least with a podcast I'm able to play a few musical games, do some re-edits, throw in exclusive remixes, and of course slip in my own music from time to time. I'm now up to broadcast #44, which you can either stream from the site or download to your digital player of choice. Where is "the site"? Here: