New N*E*R*D can mean a good or bad thing, and I'm going to say it off the top, Seeing Sounds (Virgin) is a good thing. Pharrell Williams is arguably the focus of the group, only because he's the main guy rapping and singing and one might ask "is this Filipino fisherman hat-wearing Pharrell, or Billionaire Boys Club Pharrell?". Their first two albums were somewhat different in style and tone, with fans being split over which they preferred, but Seeing Sounds is the perfect balance of both, with a few new elements thrown in.
I don't know what the perception of N*E*R*D is, are they the modern day innovators of hybrid music, making it possible for people of all persuasions to get into what they're doing? Some have said that while The Neptunes has always been hip-hop friendly, N*E*R*D is them plus Shay Haley trying to get some of that rock (read "white") dollar. How so? It's the idea that here's two black guys and a Filipino creating un-Neptunes-ish music, but what does that mean? Maybe in the end, like Linkin Park, it doesn't even matter-er-er-er er-er-er, because N*E*R*D is a bonafied success. Is their black music too white, and when they create alleged 'white music', is it too ethnic? Yes, these are the questions people ask and in the end it... yeah you know.
So what's Seeing Sounds about? If anything, the group are up to their musical and lyrical antics again, Pharrell getting off on enticing and exciting his listeners with snappy lines and a cockiness that has always been his trademark. In other words, "you're listening to me, I'll give you what I think you need" and that comes off in tracks like "Windows", "Anti-Matter", and "Sooner Or Later". The success of "Maybe" has lead to a number of similar ballads for the ladies, so after two bangers or so you get Pharrell oozing and schoomzing it up, yet you can tell he doesn't take himself too seriously. There's still that "how ya like me now?" attitude in N*E*R*D's music, but sometimes the gangsta limp is acknowledged and you can feel it. On the production side, Pharrell and Chad Hugo have upped their game quite a bit. One might mistake this for an album from the mid-90's with all of its excursions into drum-n-bass and jungle beats. A few may feel it's dated but I think it's their way of saying that the sped-up sample production style of Kanye West (who they'll be opening up for this summer) is nothing new. It sounds like the group are using more samples, but to my ears it sounds like they're simply sampling their own musicianship, as they always have. The drum programming is incredibly tight, they'll drop in a sweet ballad in the middle of a barrage of lunatic beats and yet comes off sounding like N*E*R*D. "Yeah You" should be a candidate for a single (complete with a vocal nod sounding eerily similar to Cee-Lo, and the album's best song, "Love Bomb", could become the song of the year with its addictive chorus We need a love bomb/to just blow us away/to fricken blow the lights out/turn the night to day/run from miles away/just to make it right now/fuck what the government says/we gotta save some life now/is that okay?, and the Mexican horns put this song over the edge at the right moment. It's a song about the world as we're living it, how we're in a Truman's World reality and there needs to be a break from everything in order to find a sense of who we are.
There are messages here, but you'll have to take a deep listen to discover them. Pharrell, Chad, and Shay have never been afraid to speak their mind in their music, and Seeing Sounds is the visions explored in audio form. On the surface it's a very entertaining album with a lot of funky grooves, dancable tracks, tentative hip-hop jams, and ballads, with every song creating a nice balance that will make old fans happy and new fans want to discover their back catalog.
(Seeing Sounds is available from CD Universe.)
Hussein Boon is a guitarist who is all about being smooth and in total control of his playing and his music. On Life Changes (Brown Baby) he plays over a soundscape that sounds like a mixture of the best elements of Santana (circa 1978's Marathon album), Pat Metheny, and even Jazzanova. In fact, if Jazzanova were ever in need of a live guitarist for future tours, I would highly suggest bringing Boon on.
The album is very laid back with the kind of pace that never gets too complex or "out there", it would be the perfect Sunday morning album for me. "Ascension" sounds like one is about to go into prayer, whether it's contemplating life, heading into the ocean to surf a wave, or to kiss a woman for the first time. "Life Changes" has the same kind of strut that Steely Dan's "Home At Last" has, with the Bernard Purdie-styled shuffle guiding Boon along with his finger playing style. I also like how he lets the music drop for a moment, and slowly the rest of the sounds come in to join him for a chorus. "Night Train" begins with a slight Asian-motif (at least to my ears) before getting cool, calm, and collected in a very breeze performance. His playing is laid back and never extravagant, but it's very distinct too. Some of the familiarity comes in through the arrangements in these songs, sounding a bit old school but Boon's guitar playing and tone he gets out of the instrument makes you want to hear what he is able to do within territory that some may feel is very close to home.
Life Changes is an album perfect for a romantic occasion, a way to get ready to hit the jazz clubs, and as the backdrop to surf films. There are times when a musician will want to play over an electronic backdrop and end up sounding like a mess, there's nothing like that here. The instrumentals compliment his playing but they also stand out on their own, which is why I made the Jazzanova comparison. All of the beats could easily have moved into unique directions but they stayed within reason, similar to Boon's own approach. He seems like a musician who wants to explore his own boundaries, and I hope he will be able to in future albums and any collaborations that come his way.
(Life Changes is available digitally through Brown Baby Records and will be released on CD later this year.)
Want a bit of country and Americana in your life? Safe to say that in these troubled times, it never hurts to go back to the roots of how a lot of us first heard music, or first began to appreciate music for more than what we heard on the radio, and Anna Laube is someone who isn't a throwback but merely a continuation of what's good about acoustic music, without the trademarked "Unplugged" moniker. Down home music is what this is, and Outta My Head (Ginkgo) sounds like a bit of what Norah Jones has done as of late but with a bit more Dixie Chicks-style grit. What I like about Laube is not only her playing (she's credited with playing guitars, piano, keyboard, and a shaker) but also the fearlessness of her voice as she sings about loving, longing, hoping, and simply taking in the world she sees. She is a storyteller that speaks from the heart and soul about the mysteries of life, something that can be shared universally. In a song like "Something I Can Feel" she speaks about not knowing someone but knowing that she will because there's something inside that tells her that perhaps that person is someone worth holding on to. She creates the kind of music that is very accessible, but not too much to where Celine Dion might want to sit in and do some human beat boxing. It's the kind of music one might find on the last road on the last town in one's journey, where you're holding on to nothing but the hope of comfort. Laube is the audio comfort you've been looking for.
(Outta My Head is available from CDBaby.)
From Bubblegum To Sky is a one-man project, and that man is Mario Hernandez. A Soft Kill (Eenie Meenie) is a sugar-coated pure pop album for pure pop music fans, the kind of guilty pleasure that will make you gitty because you know you can take the sweetness. Hernandez has a nasally voice that might sound good in other genres (and perhaps perfect for others). I remember hearing similar artists on Beavis & Butt-Head where they would both make fun of them, and perhaps at first listen it sounds funny but this guy makes some fairly good songs with such titles as "Captain Tennille", "Flies On A Jet Plane", "Say Goodbye", and the soon-to-be-great "I Always Fall Apart".
I don't know how different these songs would sound with a woman singing them instead of Hernandez but when this album gains a cult following in 20 years we'll find out when "The Flash" is used for a digital camera commercial. That is, if there are still TV's.
A Soft Kill is available on vinyl and CD directly from Eenie Meenie Records.)
Tilly And The Wall rock, can I say that right now? They play pop where things can be sweet and wholesome while other times they'll turn the guitars up and kick your shin guards. Their third album doesn't have a proper title but you can call it simply O (Team Love) since the album will be packaged in an oval-shaped case.
As for the music, Tilly And The wall are the kind of band you want to see live because they provide the kind of energy that will make you want to jump and raise your fist, new anthems for a new generation. A song like "Pot Kettle Black" rocks but is also sexy when they cat catty and call other women sluts and ho's. "Cacophony" doesn't quite sound like it's title but the lyrics talk about how these modern times just aren't right. This song sounds like something buy The Breeders if they overdosed on The Who's Tommy album. The group are very clever in an XTC sort of way but never go too far to where they come off "too smart", but that isn't to say that they're trying to play dumb. In other words, the group are more than capable of creating their own indie pop rock opera but are too busy having fun with their cool and intense pop ditties, most of which never go past the three minute mark (only one song, "Chandelier Lake", clocks in at a meaty 4:16). It's interesting to hear a group perform and write as a group, so while you hear a wide range of topics thrown into the ring, it still has a very cohesive sound. Very fancy, very fancy indeed.
(O. is available directly from Team Love.)
Explorations (Big Bang) is the latest effort from the David Leonhardt Trio, with Leonhardt's piano work as remarkable as ever. Along with drummer Alvester Garnett and bassist Matthew Parrish, the album is trio jazz in its finest form, with "Whispers Of Contentment/Shouts Of Joys" being the perfect way to welcome the listener in as Leonhardt and Parrish both get to solo while Garnett remains the anchor throughout. Leonhardt's playing is so fluid that you want to listen to him for much longer than the CD provides, and Garnett has a groove about him that is undeniable, he knows how to do the fills and gets into every nook and cranny but without ever playing too much like Elvin Jones or an Art Blakey. Parrish warms up each song beautifully, whether it's straight up jazz or a blues number like "Late Night Blues", where you can imagine a woman coming into the room with nothing on but a smile.
Explorations explores not only Leonhardt's material, but a diverse range of material chosen to cover, such as Elton John's "Your Song", The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (a nice performance, especially since the guitar is absent), Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love", and James Taylor's "Fire And Rain", all done with respect to the originals. At times these musicians give the songs a fresh of fresh air, especially the AM-worn "Fire And Rain", proving that a good song is still a good song that just needs the cobwebs cleaned from its crevices. Leonhardt's own "Winter Waltz" would make Dave Brubeck smile as it has the kind of feel the jazz maestro is known for, with the brightness and feel that fans have come to know and love
What also makes it work is that the album was engineered by Parrish and produced by Leonhardt, so you're truly hearing a jazz album from the ground up, as meant to be heard by the musicians.
(Explorations is available from CDBaby.)
I'm a huge fan of Latin jazz, especially the music that comes out of Brazil. There's just a different state of mind down there, a unique form of intensity that can and will blow you away no matter what and the Brazilian Trio of Dudka da Fonseca, Helio Alves and Nilson Matta do just that on Forests (Zoho.)
Only one song is less than five minutes long (the 3:40 "Flying Over Rio"), so what you hear from these gentleman is musicianship at its very best. "Samba Alegre" could easily go on for another 7 minutes as they sound as if they're parading around each other and making the music speak, or at least making their visions and thoughts audible through their fantastic playing, one could imagine Gato Barbieri stepping into the studio and taking things on to a new level of things. There's a moment where Alves sounds like he's playing a completely different song but returns to his solo about 30 seconds later before touching on the theme. Da Fonseca's playing will delight any fan of the drums, especially Brazilian drumming, it sounds like he's a well-versed painter with all of the right strokes. Matta's bass work is very impressive too, I love it how in "Pro Zeca" he will play along with the band and then mimic some of Alves' playing for a few chords, only to return to where he left off before. This trio reminds me a bit of the spontaneity of Ahmad Jamal, where you can hear the freedom. Freedom sounds damn good from here.
My only complain is that a few of these songs fade to silence, and I would have preferred to have heard them end to its proper conclusion. Other than that, Forests is a brilliant recording, jazz or otherwise.
(Forests is available from CDBaby.)
Michaela Rabitsch and Robert Pawlik are a couple who create music together, and on Moods (Extraplatte) they show how good it can be to live, love, and jam together.
The entire album are original compositions either written by them individually or as a team, with Pawlik playing some mighty fine jazz guitar while Rabitsch balances things between singing and playing the trumpet. She is very good at both, although with this German-born singer it seems the emphasis of her English lyrics isn't always at the right spots. It's not a mess by any means, but you can tell English is not her native language. But when she plays the trumpet, language doesn't matter.
I also like they incorporate a number of Latin and African influences into their music, always acknowledging the roots of their love and where it has traveled over the years. Pawlik is generally reserved in his guitar work but I could easy see him getting more into his playing in a live setting, I would like to hear that more in their studio work. Overall, not a bad album at all.
(Moods is available from CDBaby.)
Like any instrument played in jazz, the one chosen will lead to its own world. Trombonists are in their own world, but the best know they are because of the years they spent perfecting their craft. Michael Dease is one of those musicians who brings a lot to his music, allowing the world to hear his talents, which he shares on Clarity (Blues Back).
Throughout the album he plays at the top of his game, doing it with the same type of class not unlike James Pankow or Steve Turre. "Relentless" has him forming an aura for the rest of the album, and when he incorporates the other musicians (including pianist Kris Bowers) into the mix, before they blend together until they reach the theme, it's a defining moment that helps guide the listener to what the rest of the album may be like. "You Dig" is a mid-tempo groover that sounds like the attitude of a mack in a big city, and all of the musicians (Dease and Bowers plus Brandon Lee (trumpet), Kenneth Salters (drums), Sharel Cassity (alto saxophone), Matthew Heredia (bass)) sound like they're all in it together. They don't play competitively, it's not a race to the finish, but they all respect the leader of these sessions by making sure their actions bring them all to the end in one peace. When Cassity plays her solo, she brings her flavor into the mix and helps bring her style to the forefront, but she also knows she's a link to the music, the song, and the other musicians carrying each other forward. It's a nice lead in to "Believe", slowing things down a bit but still as intense as the songs before it.
Dease is very much about the name of his album, playing with clarity and without pain or strain. It's a joy to listen to this and hear him backed by incredible musicians who help bring his music to life (9 of the 10 songs here are Dease originals). Clarity definitely has the feel of a quality jazz album of the past, and of course jazz at its best is timeless so this is an album I hope will inspire musicians to play at their best.
(Clarity is available from CDBaby.)
Simon Star says his music is inspired by "nu-jazz, sexy house, and electronic dance". He is a drummer who was out of playing and creating music for years, but the power of percussion brought him back and he has unveiled his debut album.
Blue Lights To Saturn is definitely nu-jazz with a bit of new age to it, so it's laid back and relaxing without it being mind numbingly boring. Even though the guy is a drummer, some of his programming leaves a lot to be desired, and perhaps that has to do with whatever technology he's using to create it. That's the only drawback, to hear an album created by a drummer where the drumming sounds too much like a robot. I like the music but it becomes too repetitive too fast, and that's not a good thing. I hope he tightens things next time and gets more familiar with the equipment he is using.
(Blue Lights To Saturn is available from CDBaby.)