Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Run-Off Groove #219

Welcome to The Run-Off Groove #219. I am John Book and it's all about quality, not quantity. Take as much as you want, but know your limits. Now, the column.

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Image Hosted by After two very good albums, Nikka Costa was dropped from Virgin Records. At a time when the industry is struggling for anything, it seems they were not willing to watch an artist mature and grow. Even with her music being used in television commercials and film, it seems Costa was not enough for Virgin so she bailed. In that time she gave birth to her first child, which was part of what inspired her for this new project, which he recorded out of her own pocket. The end result is Pebble To A Pearl (Go Funk Yourself/Stax/Concord), an album that is a mixture of old soul with the sound that was a dominant force on her first two albums.

In "Stuck To You", she speaks to her man and says unapologetically "If you a bride, I'll be your wedding/If you a soul, I'll be your Otis Redding/If you a verse, I'll be your song/If you a king, I'll be your kong". The groove in this song and for the first part of the album is very much in a 60's tinge. Some have already said that it's a reaction to the success of Amy Winehouse, something that Solange Knowles had also done effectively on her recent album, so do we need another album that sounds like it would be perfect for the Northern Soul crowd? Fortunately it is not what dominates the album, but the first few songs are usually what hook listeners and some might think "damn, a rehash". It's not, and if there's a plus side to this, it's a chance to hear her sing this style, and she's not bad at all. The anticipation for new Nikka doesn't come to a halt, but for me it made me wonder if this would be the tone for the rest of the songs.

Again, it isn't, and once she moves out of the 60's girl group groove, we hit a bit of 70's soul and funk, including a song that sounds a hell of a lot like Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman". Some of the songs do sound like variations of a theme, and it was unexpected because Costa had always made herself out to be someone who went out of her way to make her brand of music, and it feels like she's taking a few steps back, as if she no longer wants to take the risk. Just when it feels like she's going to pull out something predictable, she busts out and does a blues track, which suits her voice perfectly. She has the grace of a soul singer, can belt it out and scream like a rocker, so it would be natural to have those qualities and sing the blues, as she does in "Someone For Everything", which should become her "Take It To The Limit" (The Eagles) and a highlight of her live shows. "Love To Love You Less" is another blues track where she puts down her man in a not so subtle way, in a fashion that honors the tradition of blues women throughout history. "Damn I Said It First" has her locked in a nice and tight reggae groove, or perhaps it's a Meters-influenced beat, there's definitely a hint of New Orleans in its grooves. If the beat sounds like Bill Withers's "Use Me", it's due to drummer James Gadson, who played on that Withers track and makes his presence known on most of the songs here. Anyone who refuses to believe that Costa isn't a soul singer will have to listen to the irresistible "Loving You" (a great Johnny "Guitar" Watson song), which manages to reach the same level of intensity as Erykah Badu, and when the album hits the final track (in the form of "Bullets In The Sky"), it's as if Lauryn Hill passed the torch to Costa and she was able to take it home and back. The song would have fit perfectly on Everybody Got Their Something and Can'tNeverDidNothing, with heavy and booming drums from Gadson and a lush arrangement that would have made her father proud. I wish the drums were more forward in the mix, that would have taken things over the top for me but if she ever releases the song as a single, I hope they create a new mix where the drums are just in your face. The song itself, which touches on war and the pain that comes from it, may not get her massive airplay but it's a message that at times seems ignored for the sake of promoting sexiness in death and violence:

Mama's cryin' bullets in the sky
raining, raining tears on each side
Fight for love, don't love the fight
Mama's cryin' bullets in the sky

The path of fear we're being lead to tread is paved with wasted life

It's what you'd expect to hear from the likes of Roberta Flack and Kasey Chambers, and perhaps it could only come from such a bold artist as Costa, because you certainly would not expect to hear this from Beyonce Knowles, Rihanna, or Alicia Keys.

So how does an album that begins on a somewhat mediocre note end up being a true reflection of what Costa represents as an artist? Ineffective sequencing might be a key, and I'm someone who respects the integrity of the album, I would have preferred a stronger start and slight adjustments to the first half, because the second half is solid as is. The power of the songs on the second half make up for some of the faults that can be heard in the first, but you can't fault a project too much that was hers from start to finish. It's not a bad album at all, but careful sequencing in the first half could have made this good album a lot better. Costa could have fallen into the trap of making this an all-covers album, which would work in her favor but not as an album that is meant to represent her as an independent artist. When it works, it works very well, and Pebble To A Pearl is an album that takes time to warm up until all the components begin to work, just like an old TV set.

(Pebble To A Pearl is available from CD Universe.)

Image Hosted by If Demi Lovato is an unfamiliar name to you, you may want to ask your children, nieces, or nephews. For those without, some facts. Miss Lovato is a teenage actress getting some attention within the Disney camp with her role in Camp Rock, the cinematic masterpiece starring the fantastic Jonas Brothers. Okay, maybe not a masterpiece but with the rise of Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana, Disney has been quick with their hype machine to let people know who could be the next Miley Cyrus. Disney has no shortage of young ladies to fill the role, but they are pushing Lovato because not only can she act, but can sing. The same can be said for fellow Disney actress Selena Gomez, but what makes Lovato different is that she wants to be a rocker. She's released a few songs that received significant airplay on Disney Radio, so can she pull off a full album?

To my surprise, she can, or that is, her producers can. Don't Forget (Hollywood) has her belting out the songs as if she was a cross between Pink and Michelle Branch, complete with the moans and sighs of the latter. Since this is her debut album, it merely displays her capabilities as a singer and since these songs are being molded for her, she does a decent job at doing what she is told to do. The songs are all written from an innocent point of view of a 16 year old, probably written by 42 year old men, but who am I to judge? I am not a part of Demi Lovato's target audience, but I can see how she could appeal to young rockers of all ages. She has the swagger and attitude that is an important part of rock, and sings songs that will create a lot of energy for those who take her in via their headphones or CD player in their room. She sings about the puppy love, but she also sings about joy and happiness, so don't expect anything heavy or too deep on her album. What you do have is a singer who has the potential to become an adult rocker in the vein of Gwen Stefani, if she wishes to go down that route. She's a cute girl, and I can see why teenage boys would dig her steez, but as they get older and discover new music, will they be around for her as she creates songs with more grown-up themes? There is a stigma with being connected with Disney, so maybe like Ashley Tisdale she'll have to record an album with a label away from the Disney camp, which would mean working with producers who could make her edgier than she is. It's an album one would expect from a teenage rocker, and while movies and television shows may one day dominate her career, I honestly hope she will continue making music. Considering the pap Disney normally releases (the album is released on Hollywood, a Disney-owned company), this isn't bad at all, and at least she has a voice one can recognize amongst a barrage of copy-cats.

(Don't Forget is available from CD Universe.)

Image Hosted by Random is back with a brand new album, or in truth an EP packaged in a DVD case, and if you've heard about this man and have wondered if he's worth the time, pick up his new album.

The 8th Day: A Story Of New Beginnings (RAHM Nation) has him stepping up a few levels, reaching the kind of lyrical levels equal to that of Gift Of Gab. When Random speaks, he does so as a storyteller with things to pass on to listeners, old and new fans, and those he will eventually reach when they realize he is an MC worthy of musical examination. He talks about going through life wanting to do as much as possible and hopes he doesn't reach his inevitable destination anytime soon. As he says in "Left Behind", "I hate rap but I hate rappers more", and that's very much the stigma of a lot of today's hip-hop, respect for the alleged game but not caring for the gamers. Random is someone you want to bet on for lyrical dominance, in that you know you will get your money's worth and then some, especially in tracks like ""Placebo (What It Is)", "Granny Smith", and "Reset Button", the latter uniting him with MC Frontalot. He also isn't afraid to bless his tracks with R&B touches, and they aren't weak either. If put with the right people, he could easily become as popular as Ludacris, but that would require the masses to listen to him for more than just catchy choruses. Random is more cohesive than his name suggests, seek and find one of the best rappers of the early 21st century.

(The 8th Day is available from

Image Hosted by "Another banger for your body and your mind", that is what Mic Crenshaw offers, and not just one banger, but a solid 17, and not one weak track among them on his new album, Thinking Out Loud (Focused Noize).

Maybe something is in the air again, either that or people are realizing that in this music called rap, it's about talking and wanting to listen to the speaker at hand. As I said on a bulletin board recently, it seems to be a return to simplicity, and through the simplicity one discovers the complexities that have been continuing through the muck of chun laost. In "Teach It" he speaks without music about the universal language of music and you can see (or at least visualize in the mind) the layers of each story and line as it builds until he comes to his conclusion. Over the laid back and politically charged "America", he speaks about having to deal with the struggle and not having the freedom to just live and be, talking about everything from video games, war, and today's children who are living their lives as if it's nothing more than a movie, one that they'll never get a chance to see the credits to. If Mic ever gets a chance to hook up with Crown City Rockers or The Roots, this could could go over the top and do even more damage. He does things "for the art of", where every track sounds like it's going to be his last, anyone who doesn't go away feeling the title track is obviously listening to smooth jazz.

After hearing this album, Mic Crenshaw sounds like someone with a mind full of verbal ammo and is ready to commit himself to battle. The way he composes his verses... and that's a key point I'm making her, composition. He is very much a hip-hop composer with an occasional bitter tongue but does it to where even if he was insulting you in your face, it would still sound like a birthday card. The guy is effective, and having the help of producers who know how to compliment him (and vice versa) makes this album a standout. Thinking Out Loud, without a fence or established boundaries, is a piece of work that you're either going to embrace or get slashed by.

Image Hosted by He is Rig 1, and he is a rapper from outer space. It isn't certain if he has ever met Kool Keith during his universal travels, but I am certain they have crossed paths. Rig 1 is not a Kool Keith wanna-be, he is in his own constellation and by bringing his music to Earth, he is letting people know what he has learned from hip-hoppers on this planet to remind them of the expansion the music once promised.

Above the Tree Line West of the Periodic (Team Love) is an album that would have fit in perfectly in any era in the last 15 to 20 years, but it's very much a futuristic album without the UFO bullshit. It's far out in the sense that there aren't too many people doing what Rig 1 is trying to do. It's atmospheric, it's musical, it features a lot of unique arrangements, and it's still very much accessible hip-hop. Titles do not begin to describe the content of the actual songs: "Taibula Rasa", "Out The Periphery" (my personal favorite), "Dirty Little Sica", and "Dawn Of The Tinman". "Double Click" is very much about the modern world of technology and how we communicate with each other (no mouse solo, unfortuantely), whle "Ghost" ends the album appropriately as Rig 1 makes his way not into the sunset, but into the sun, because he can. His influences range from the Wu-Tang Clan to Pete Rock, at times having the experimental edge of MC 900 Ft. Jesus. Is he a stoned prophet, or an astrological pimp of the highest order? Or is he a realist trying to let people know that it's very much about perspective when it comes to his music? Maybe a mixture of all three. While many talk about taking their music to the next level, he's very much on the other level like the Geto Boys, +1. Nerdy, geeky, but skilled: these compose the matter that is Rig 1. It's un-trendy but very much of the now, he's above being relevant because he's been through it and turned it inside out. You may not recognize it at the entrance, but you'll feel like you've returned home by the time it's time to venture out into the open again.

(Above the Tree Line West of the Periodic is available directly from Team Love.)

Image Hosted by Scott Garred, who calls himself Super XX Man, says that his head might explode in the opening track "Medication", but throughout Volume XII: There'll Be Diamonds (Tender Loving Empire) he sounds like he wears the simplicity button on his heart with pride, and there's nothing wrong with that. The promo material that came with this album talks about how Garred works at a psychiatric institution at Oregon State Hospital, and with songs like "Medication", "Crazy People", "Psychotic Break", and "House/Home" it's obvious where he received some of the inspiration. Some of the material here sounds like Meddle-era Pink Floyd (and I'm talking more about music like "San Tropez", not "Echoes"), especially with the extra non-musical sound effects that come through in some of these tracks. He is able to envelope the listener into his world, and the worlds he describes in his songs. It's not quite folk but more like folk snorted by the guys in The Flaming Lips, and Garred is capable of making you dwell in his misery and occasional bright spots and motivate you to change zip codes. It might take a few listens to fully grasp what Super XX Man is doing, but let it sink in and perhaps after the second or third listen, you'll find it difficult to remove that smirk from your face.

(Volume XII: There'll Be Diamonds will be released on October 21st and can be ordered through Tender Loving Empire

Image Hosted by There was a term someone came up with this type of low-brow, almost monotonous-type of singing. Robyn Hitchcock has done this very well where it almost sounds mundane in a Bob Dylan manner but the reason you want to hear him is because you want to listen, and with McCarthy Trenching you get a sense that you want to hookybob on the plane while letting his music blow freely on your face.

Calamity Drenching (Team Love) tells us "you don't have to be alone to be lonesome" (as told in "Christmas Song"), and throughout the album he talks about the ironies of life in all of its forms. You want to play these songs over and over because you can easily relate to his stories, and you also hope that others will feel the same way you do as you rock yourself out of your own mental pain. He is a pianist and one who takes charge of his songs in the same way Ben Folds or Elton John does, and just as there are many love songs to talk about the ultimate conquest, there are enough songs of lost love that will warm up any fire in the cold hearts of humans, and Trenching is one of the best of the current generation.

(Calamity Drenching is available directly from Team Love.)

  • That's it for this week's Run-Off Groove. There's still more CD's I have to get to, but that will have to wait for another time. If you have any new music, DVD's, books, or hot sauce, please contact me through my MySpace page and I'll pass along my contact address. Hard copy is preferred over digital files, and will get reviewed a lot faster than a digital files due to the amount of e-mails I receive.

  • Thank you, and come back next week for #220.

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