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Also, each review features links to the artist's home page or MySpace page, so if you want to hear them, you can do so easily. Links are also provided to make a vinyl, CD, or digital purchase, since your local mall probably doesn't have most of these titles.
Now, the column.
Sometimes when you listen to music, you aren't sure if what you're listening to is great, special, or something more. Australia's Kylie Auldist is a name that I was initially unfamiliar with at first, even though I am familiar with the group she sings with, The Bamboos. It had been awhile since I heard them, so Auldist did not ring a bell at first. While I prefer vinyl and CD's for review, I received Just Say (Tru-Thoughts) as a digital file. I believe the file came with an image of the cover, but I did not look at it at first. The first thing I heard was music with a distinct 60's soul vibe, very much the Northern Soul sound that made Amy Winehouse the smash she was with Back To Black. A lot of artists have taken that girl group sound to heart, so without knowing her Bamboos connection, I assumed she was just another white lady singing soulfully. As the album moved on, her voice began to sound more "authentic". If not that, there was a sense of soul that I couldn't quite figure out. Then it reached "Everybody Here Wants You", which is very much a 70's vibe in the vein of The New Birth. It was a slow ballad, and it was seductive, smooth, elegant, all before she begins to sing about "29 pearls and your kiss/ kiss, a singing smile/coffee smell and lilac skin, your flame in me". I felt like I was in a dark room with that one I've been looking for all my life, and she's luring me with all that is alluring to me and then some. Nowhere to go, I'm trapped in a chair, taking in everything I can detect with the senses I'm conscious of, and I'm caught up in it. In other words, I'm sold, I'm completely blown away by what I hear, and I have to to know who this woman is. I see her photo and say "oh shit, don't tell me..." She looks like someone who might be familiar, the kind of local girl I probably could have hung out with Hawai'i if we went to the right clubs, hung out at the safe thrift stores and coffee shops, as I held her bag. I began to do the research, and I'm close with my Polynesian connection. Auldist is part Samoan, and has been singing for years. I listen to the remainder of the album and I begin to understand what she's about.
Just Say is the kind of soul album that is sorely missing in the marketplace, and it's not just the Northern soul thing that makes her who she is. She can easily commit to a laid back funk vibe, but there's also "Pretty Things", an acoustic number that will definitely please fans of Clara Hill more recent work. Along with her voice, what makes these songs work are the fact that they are well written, touching on experiences and emotions that are often overshadowed by fashionable verses and the producer trying to outshine the actual artist. Like any good soul album, there's a lot of joy and happiness, a touch of sadness, and a hell of a lot of glory. It's the kind of album with a sound that immediately touches the soul, and you want to tell everyone "have you heard of Kylie Auldist? This is better than everything in the Top 50 right now". Auldist knows how to work a song and never goes beyond her limits, some singers push things and ruin their voice or it makes them sound as if they have more than their capabilities. The album as a whole flows very well from nice dance numbers to a bit of the quiet storm, some humble material, before returning to the dance floor, and that in itself is worthy of approval. But it's her voice and the music I can't get enough of, and as I've said many times before, as much as I'd like for every artist to tap into some of the formuals of the past to show its relevancy, some would essentially ruin it. Auldist is an artist who knows what music means, and by sharing that she is sharing a talent that has to be experienced. This will definitely become one of my favorite albums of the year.
(Just Say is available from Dusty Groove and digitally from eMusic.)
Upon first listen of Lizzy Parks, the first few notes made me wonder if this was another visit into Northern soul land. But she begins to sing and I'm hearing very different from the rest, very jazzy influences. With a title like "Raise The Roof" I begin to wonder if she's someone who wants to make modern references just to be able to crossover to a younger audience. I'm proven wrong again as the music changes in style, almost sounding like what Monday Michiru would sound like if she hooked up with Jazzanova
Raise The Roof (Tru-Thoughts) is modern jazz with hints of soul, funk, and at times a hip-hop urgency, but this is far from anything that sounds like hip-hop. Or maybe it's a bit closer to the source, just as the Daptone guys do it. Parks' voice sometimes reaches that of a chanteuse, or a Minnie Riperton where she wraps herself in the music and flirts with the bottom heavy rhythm section, the lush string arrangement, or the schnazzy piano solo ("Ode To St. Cecilie"). For someone with such a delicate voice, she has a lot of power and it comes off gracefully, but she takes things to a higher level with "Prayer". The gentle sound of her voice, complimented with just a bass and piano at first, sounds like the perfect music you'd hear during a recently discovered romantic film shot in black & white. The color begins to come in slowly and you see the different tones and smell the scent of autumn through the emotions experienced through her singing. She's in control and sets the path of each song, and that's when you know someone knows what they're doing, that control that makes you want to put this on repeat. Everything gels in perfectly and it feels... right. Jazz vocals with hints of pop, it's a bold statement from a very bold singer.
(Raise The Roof is available from Dusty Groove.)
Little Jackie is a brand new artist based out of Brooklyn who, like many others these days, is trying to gain attention showing an appreciation for 60's and 70's soul. Her album cover has her looking like a B-girl, so one can say she wants to be a "hybrid" artist. Unfortunately it comes off like she's making music to suit the needs of a record label who want to have their own Amy Winehouse or Lily Allen, Peaches or Solange Knowles.
The album features many odes to Northern soul, tweaked so that they have extra bass (think reggae), but lyrically she adds a modern touch with references to cell phones, computers, and popping a lot of pills. Okay, so Winehouse did the same thing but it sounded a bit more authentic when someone broke out of the sound and showed she had a bit of balls. She sings, she raps a bit, she does the sing-song rap, and while it can be impressive upon first listen, it gets boring about half way through the album. "The Kitchen", with its very crispy and raer breaks, would work as a single if people understood what makes this song so great. Her vocals here standout and it would have been great if she had spread that out for the duration of the album. Instead, it's an album that goes everywhere without a plan, and it's unfortunate.
(The Stoop is available from CD Universe.)
Psapp are a British duo of the electronic variety, or at least one half creates the musical soundscapes while the other sings. The Camel's Back (Domino) isn't just a female voice singing over hard booming beats. Carim Clasmann is a masterful craftsman in the field of sound assembly, he will create something that sounds very ethnic ("Part Like Waves") or do something where you're not sure if it's rock, new wave, or something you can't quite figure out ("I Want That"). With "Fickle Ghost" it sounds like a simple keyboard melody, but then the heavy, almost industrial-beat comes in with a string section and it takes the listener on an unexpected journey. Each song doesn't sound anything like the song before, so one can't grasp the scope of the album until it is initially heard in full.
The music is complimented with the great voice of Galia Durant, who is able to weave herself through Clasmann's musical fabric and envelope everything that goes on, without her sounding strange, out of place, or hesitant. Sometimes when musicians and singers attempt to do something they don't want to do or aren't sure how to do it, you can hear that in the music. You don't hear that with Durant, who is much of a rocker (think Pat Benatar or Pink as she is a balladeer or a folk singer. Together, Psapp are an exciting listen, a duo that aren't afraid to get diverse and include as many of their influences as possible, whether it's ragtime jazz ("Parker") or circus music ("Marshrat"). They might fool us the next time and deliver an incredible pop album, but I hope that guilty pleasure is something they'll hold back from for a few years. By the time the ride is over, you'll want to head to the back of the line and start again.
(The Camel's Back is available directly from Psapp.net. Those who seek the vinyl version can purchase it directly from Domino Record Co.. Earlier works by Psapp are available digitally from eMusic.)
Psapp - The Monster Song
Black Element is that guy who understands the history of the music and musicians who have come before him to pave the path he's about to create. With A Major Minority (Ill Roots), he makes a bold move by starting his album with a hot hip-hop track, only to touch on a bit of hip-house vibe with "The Stickup Kid?!?!", or at least the tempo may make you bust out your old Scoob and Scrap Luva moves. Even at this tempo, he sounds comfortable and certain that people will rock as he rattles off things endlessly and flawlessly. "Out In The Cold" sounds like something from the Common and/or Mad Skillz vaults, and as far as telling stories, you're right there with him looking at asses in Daisy Dukes, waiting for a feud at award shows, and him walking down the street waiting to execute fake rappers on stage.
Energy-wise, he sounds like the kind of guy who would be alongside Lupe Fiasco or Kanye West, but seems less affected by the role an MC tends to hold, he is a storyteller with privileges and he's not going to take advantage of it. A Major Minority has a lot of different musical textures that will please the hardcore cratedigger, the smooth sample-spotter, and collegiate listeners who enjoy hearing soundscapes fold onto and into each other. Black Element is, as he says in "Quiet Night", out to compete and when ideas come to head, he'll put pen to paper and commit himself to inevitable excellence. Welcome Black Element into your consciousness, he is what will keep hip-hop alive in the next five and beyond.
(A Major Minority is being made available for free directly from AMajorMinority.com.)
A 6-Pack With Black: Black ELement's A Major Minority from Daniel Hedges on Vimeo.
K-The-I??? is one big motherfucker, and I mean that in a good way. Anyone who is big and makes an attempt to bring themselves out in any musical genre has a lot to deal with. In hip-hop, it is the eternal comparisons to Biggie Smalls but let's get it out of the way: K-The-I??? sounds nothing like Biggie. If I have to compare him, I'd compare him more to Chill Rob G more than anything. If there is a cliche that always gets mentioned with big rappers, it's this: when you listen to Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow (Mush), the brother shows that he has a lot of heart.
Fuck the cliches and let's get into the meat of the matter. K-The-I??? is a true MC, someone with that gift on his own, and he's able to find producers who are able to share their works by offering them who blesses them with flawless lyrics. "Decisions" has Melltron-type samples that sound like something from a prog rock album, then some Pharrell Williams-type background vocals, and then a pounding double time beat that would give Timbaland a decade. K-The-I??? raps bold as if he is a politician, standing on the podium insuring everyone is there to listen as he speaks with authority. He looks for a world without poverty, and he seeks the good life by exploring any and all musical worlds, including sounds that aren't the stereotypical hip-hop sound, and it sounds right as it comes from him.
(Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow will be available on vinyl and CD on November 7th, and can be pre-ordered directly from Mush Records.)
Ruste Juxx has been heard on a number of albums and mix CD's in the last year, and now he's presenting himself in full length form with Indestructible (Duck Down), and as he talks about in the Black Milk-produced "Wipe Off Ya Smile", don't fuck with him or your bitch ass will get the kl-kl-klack.
Ruste Juxx is a grimy MC who wants to commit crimes and isn't afraid to explain his methods in detail. With tracks like "Pimpin' Ya Wife", "Machine Gun Skunk", "Morgue Truck", and "Homicide Niggaz", he proves himself by making the kind of songs that may make you want to sharpen your razor blades, and after hearing the congas of "Get Up", if Brooklyn doesn't come to mind, you haven't been paying attention. This album is trademark New York hip-hop, done without regret, and it makes you want to raise your first to salute the return of the good shit. Remember when people used to talk about hip-hop and refer to the word "science"? This album is done with a science, and while the guy carries him off as someone you wouldn't want to fuck with anywhere, songs like "Optimistic" and "Love Is Worth Waiting For" (complete with 70's soul samples) reveal that the guy can be compassionate when needed. Don't call him a thug rapper with a heart, that's for the mainstream media to come up with when they're bored. But call him a top notch MC who isn't afraid to show his reaction to the streets as he looks to the future for a way to get off the streets. It may be trademark NYC hip-hop, but it's also wordly too, a wordly message that hopefully people will be able to find and seek without the lure of the Broadway lights.
(Indestructible is available from CD Universe and digitally from eMusic.)
The West coast is represented on a new mix CD by JNatural and DJ Ray Ray Raw. JNatural is a female MC who raps raw with stories of sex, lust, and power and on Sex, Lies and Sextape (self-released) does it with the same kind of punch that Lil' Kim and Princess Superstar offered in the old days with a sass that is uniquely their own. She also sings too (and quite well) but likes to let herself be known as the rugged bitch who can do things with a sense of humor but her style and lyrics are no laughing matter. DJ Ray Ray Raw does his best with the beats and samples he uses, I'd like to hear more exploration from him in a full length setting. However, JNatural is someone who shows that you can be a female rapper and prove that you have what it takes to step up with the big boys. Don't let her looks fool you, she'll verbally slash all combaluns with a vengeance, and that's the point behind this CD. As she says in the intro, the lure of the cover photo is nothing more than eye candy, but now that you have the candy in your hands, now what? It may appear at first that she does nothing but sex rhymes, but if you look at just the titles and make that assumption, you're not really paying attention. This lady is serious, and I hope she's pushed to the forefront with her style. It would be cool to hear her do some rhymes with Leila "Topik" Shun and Mash Comp. DJ Ray Ray Raw has knowledge of the music he uses, and I want to hear more from him.
(Sex, Lies and Sextape is available as a free download from JNatural 's and DJ Ray Ray Raw's respective MySpace pages.)
The folks at Decon Media were sponsors of a recent hip-hop tour featuring Dilated Peoples, The Alchemist, Aceyalone, and 88 Keys and now they have released the festivities as a budget priced DVD/CD combo.
The DVD portion of Fresh Rhymes and Videotape (Decon) is brief and somewhat unfulfilled. There is documentary footage of what the guys did on the tour bus, outside of the tour bus, and backstage, but there's not much content. The highlight of the documentary footage is when The Alchemist talks about how to eat a bagel properly so that the cream cheese doesn't turn into cheese soup. That's really it, you probably get more interesting stuff on a YouTube or MySpace video, but you see it here in much better quality. Another highlight? DJ Babu. The guy is funny and he's the guy you'd wake up early in the morning to go fishing with. That's the kind of guy he is. Or isn't.
Even though the audio CD features a mere six songs (thus it's an EP), these tracks are some of the best these guys have done. 88 Keys and Mars Whiteman offer "I'm Like", and he also shows up in the "Fresh Rhymes and Videotape Anthem" along with Evidence, The Alchemist, Aceyalone, and Iriscience. Iriscience and Aceyalone team up for the uplifting "Legendary Status", while "Left Out In The Cold" unites Aceyalone, 88-Keys, and The Alchemist for a song that wraps up the disc nicely. Some may argue that an EP is nothing more than an inbetween-album-toss off, but these cuts are worthy of being major songs for everyone involved. I would have liked more songs of course, but six tracks left me wanting more and I have to be impatient and wait.
Considering this is being released and sold for a very nice price, it's definitely worth what you'll have to pay for it. Consider it a basic DVD with a bonus CD, or an EP with a bonus DVD. The DVD may be appealing but it's the music on the CD that blows it away. Get it.
(Fresh Rhymes and Videotape is available from CD Universe.)
DJ Babu is back with a brand new edition of his Duck Season mix CD series, and we're now up to Vol. 3 (Nature Sounds). Babu is still creating those incredible boom bap-style hip-hop, and this time he has people like Little Brother, MF DOOM, Sean Price, Joe Scudda, Cali Agents, Strong Arm Steady, Likwit Junkies, Termanology, Oh No, Percee P, and many others. No deep concepts or any type of continuity other than musical, it's about raw beats and scratches going into each other one right after the other, it feels like a live show or a radio freestyle session where everyone is just dropping one incredible rhyme while the room smells like beer and reefer. Favorite tracks include "The Unexpected" (featuring MF DOOM and Sean Price), "Fan Mail" (featuring Little Brother, Joe Scudda, and D-Brock, and the scorching "2-Feet" (featuring Kardinal Offishall and Babu's fellow dilated person, Iriscience. Within the 18 tracks are a bit of turntable dialogue, so for those who seek the raps, listen. For those who want to hear Babu speak with his hands, let the exchange in dialogue begin.
(Duck Season Vol. 3 is available from CD Universe and digitally from eMusic.)
B-Real has become a legend in his own right for his work with Cypress Hill and after 17 years of holding things down in a group setting, he's about to release his debut album in the form of Smoke-N-Mirrors (Duck Down). His rhymes and weeded stories about fraudulent rappers, street dealers, and personal struggles will appeal to those who seek more from their lyrics than brand names and endorsements. The sing-song choruses are a nice touch and while it's generally been a territory he has (perhaps) purposely avoided, it has the feel of Ice Cube and W.C. tracks.
The album features a number of producers, and the one track that stands out from the rest is the one The Alchemist did, "6 Minutes". If this isn't selected as a first single, I don't know, because this would be the perfect way to let people know and remind everyone else who B-Real is. The biggest surprise here: the tracks produced by B-Real himself, he could have easily done this album himself but using outside producers are definitely a helpful lure. His track with Damian Marley, "Fire", will deserve a lot of airplay when the album is released, and I can easily see the both of them performing this during the 2009 festival season. Sen Dogg surfaces in the trippy "One Life", while the track with Snoop Dogg ("Dr. Hyphenstein") is definitely the weakest of the bunch.
Cypress Hill have always had great music, and as a group they have increasingly relied on choruses to make their songs work, due to the accepted norm with today's hip-hop audiences. It doesn't sound like an old album, it's very much about the West Coast here and the sound they have developed in the last two decades. The Alchemist has his own sound that is as strong now as DJ Muggs' sound was 17 years ago. I'm making the comparisons to let people know this isn't Cypress Hill lite, it suits the vibe B-Real has always created and it's shows a side of him some may have been waiting to hear. Those who crave the rock edge of CH will have to check out Sen Dogg's album instead, but for the L.A. hip-hop hustle, pick this up.
(Smoke-N-Mirrors will be released on January 27, 2009.)
The Germans must have something in the water, for there has been an intense amount of creativity in the country in terms of creating hip-hop and electronica. DJ Bizkid is based in Berlin. He teams up with Maine's own Nomar Slevik, whose recent works have been nothing short of amazing. Together they united musically to create The Mixtape, which is just that, a collection of no-nonsense tracks that show what these two are capable of, and how the sum of its parts are just as powerful.
The album moves from nice and deep hip-hop to tracks with a bit of a rock and psychedelic edge, with "Society" (featuring JD Walker and the almighty K-The-I???) being one of those tracks that will make high schools change their dress code policies, it's cult worthy. Nomar deserves an intense listen, because even when it sounds as if he's doing things abstract, there is much comprehension in his pieces, sometimes it might take two or three songs to finally figure out. "Smoke Screens" changes tempo with each verse and may not be for everyone, but if you are able to take it in, you should be able to take this challenging listen to heart. The entire "mixtape" is non-stop so it's somewhat-claustrophobic feel is intentional and easily works as a proper album. I hope the both of them will work with each other again, and I will definitely be checking DJ Bizkid in the future.
(The Mixtape is available from eMusic.)
When Nomar Slevik isn't committing greatness under his own name, he's making himself known through a number of other projects. Done are a band that mixes up rapping with eclectic electronic sounds, indie rock, and a bit of the avant garde. Their slight tribute of Buddy Holly's "Everyday" sounds something nine inch nails might do or something Mike Patton would scream over on an Ipecac release.
The artwork and promotional material for How To Own A Shadow (Emben Digital) is very post-apocalyptic, or maybe it's about surviving the inevitable downfall of a country that gambled its way to world supremacy and failed. Now we're all on the same level, and Done offers the soundtrack for a dying world. It's nice to hear a derivative that is so unfamiliar it sounds strange, and yet welcoming. Insane.
(How To Own A Shadow is a digital release that is available through eMusic.)
Let's make this one thing perfectly clear: I'm upset. Not really, but I bring this up because The Knux are being promoted as "alternative hip-hop" when they're not. What makes them different from the pack? They do not rap about what is stereotypically the norm, so they want to be pushed as being "something other than". They do not dress up in hideous T-shirts that might look good on 50 Cent and your 75 year old grandmother, complete with the same gold and diamonds. Do they look smart, nerdy, and if so, is that the assumption that mainstream hip-hop is full of hoods, thugs, and dumb asses? It's not exactly cool to call something the alternative, since that's often viewed as "a bit more clever" than the next man, but sometimes the tag fits.
So, are The Knux really that different? No, they are a group that do rap about things you would normally expect to hear on underground/indie hip-hop, but they're signed to Interscope through a connection with Eminem. Does that make that "alternative"? No. Remind Me In 3 Days (Interscope) sounds like the kind of album you'd expect to hear from The Jungle Brothers or New Kingdom, where the adventure is in their lyrics as much as it is in their music, a combination of real instrumentation and select samples. Don't expect to hear club anthems, they're the kind of guys who might be kicked out of the club. Instead, these are basement jams, apartment slammers, and sidewalk funk, the type that isn't difficult to listen to, serious enough to where you wouldn't want to be distracted. What the real instrumentation does is adds a unique dynamic to their songs, in that when they want to expand on a line or a verse, they are able to without it sounding programmed.
By the time the album was over, I wondered what made this so "alternative"? It's not really that different, and as Me'Shell NdegeOcello would say, the alternative to hip-hop is silence. It's hip-hop, and quality hip-hop at that, so don't believe the naysayers. This is a decent album from a brand new group that should make some serious moves in the coming years.
(Remind Me In 3 Days... is available from CD Universe, in explicit form and without. Vinyl junkies are also able to order it.)
The Clutchy Hopkins phenomenon made everyone wonder who was this saluted genius? Was he really some bum who had a gift to jam, or was he a producer (or a group of producers) moonlighting? Only a select few know, but Hopkins has joined up with Shawn Lee for an album that will move many to salute their unified musical styles.
Clutch Of The Tiger (Ubiquity) sounds like one of those obscure albums I often talk about, the ones that sound like there's absolutely no mainstream appeal to it, but it manages to find its way into your collection because you care for good music. It has the feel of those much-sought-after library albums, or something that Yesterdays New Quintet may have indirectly influenced, but each song here are mental soundtracks that are laid back to the point where you may find yourself floating upstream and beyond. The music is loose, funky, and laid back, as if Lee and Hopkins decided to bring in instruments and discover what the day brought to them. It's not until the seventh song, "Dollar Shot", where some mid-tempo funk shines through with an open break and something from the farfisa files. "Bad Influence" sounds like the kind of filtered break I would love to use in one of my own songs, and... it just sounds very distant and obscure. Even "Till Next Time", which could easily be brought up to the surface by Justin Timberlake if he wanted to, sounds a few notches off from the norm, and you're into it because you know it doesn't belong anywhere but your own collection. It's the kind of album you would find on 8-track at a pawn shop, covered in soot and lettuce of unknown origin.
(Clutch Of The Tiger is available from CD Universe and digitally from eMusic.)
DJ Myxzlplix out of Los Angeles is a guy who knows his funk and soul, and proves it with a new mix CD highlighting some of the best funk and soul of the last few years. Strictly Social Mix Vol. 2 is a collection of who is how and what should be, and includes flawless flows from Amp Fiddler, Flying Lotus, Beatphreak, Belleruche, and many more creating the kind of soul that brings back the old through the new phase without Auto-Tune.
It's a very classy mix that made me not only want to hear this mix over and over, but made me want to seek each individual artist and release. I dig this one a lot.
(Strictly Social Mix Vol. 2 can be streamed directly from DJ Myxzlplix's blog.)