Tag Archives: Old/Newish Albums

Old/Newish Albums: Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun”

baduMama’s Gun is an album that came out of Electric Lady Studios in New York City around the turn of the millenium. For a few years, about ’96-2000, there was a collective of like-minded musicians who took up a near-permanent residence at the legendary studio. They referred to themselves as the Soulquarians, and Erykah Badu was a part of this group.

I’m hesitant to name the rest of this group because Badu, and this album in particular, was constantly compared to one of her Soulquarian counterparts. This is frustrating because Badu is the “female” version of no one. She is herself; she is a fiercely distinctive musician and this album is a classic that stands up without comparison to any of her male contemporaries.

Badu was one of the inadvertent standard-bearers of the neo-soul movement in the mid-late ’90s, and this album is, without a doubt, one of the best of that era. While the neo-soul era produced albums of significantly higher quality than a lot of the R&B that was getting play in the early ’90s, there are a few stand-outs among the cream of the crop, and Mama’s Gun is one of them.

While you can immediately feel this album in your bones, it really takes quite a few listens to suss out how much is packed in these songs. What’s interesting is that there are very few hooks. There isn’t a lot here that was bound to become a chart burner, and while the album did hit platinum status within a year of its release (2000 had to be the last year that that happened with any regularity), I wouldn’t use this album as an example of radio-friendly R&B.

But give this album some time and the slow-burners really start to simmer. This is most strongly evident on the first half of the album, where the songs fluidly lead from one into another and evoke the jazz and soul records from the early ’70s. Badu has updated the “quiet storm” genre for an entirely new generation, and it’s groovy as hell.

Badu doesn’t pull any punches with difficult lyrical concepts either. She touches on the pressures put on artists to consistently deliver products that sell, societal pressure towards females to adhere to an impossible standard of physical appearance, the danger of emotional baggage in relationships, and a heartbreaking lament that the rage and sorrow we feel as a culture that follows the tragic loss of life (in this case, the shooting of Amadou Diallo) is almost always short-lived.

And all this is touched upon within the framework of a generational shift in soul music. This is an album that takes the genre pioneered by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, et al, and pushes it into a new millennium. This is aided by the team of champions Badu collected to work behind the scenes: R&B/soul/jazz legends Roy Ayers and Betty Wright both contribute to the music and lyrics (respectively), Questlove and his encyclopedia-like knowledge of black/white music from the last 50 years is on drums, bass time-traveler Pino Palladino is on board updating the bass sound of the Motown machine from the ’60s/’70s, Roy Hargrove contributes horn arrangements that heavily evoke the ’30s/’40s (most obviously on the album closer “Green Eyes”), J Dilla provided song composition and production with one ear stuck in obscure soul from the ’70s and the other on the pulse of current hip hop and soul, and finally, vinyl/vintage equipment messiah Russell Elevado on mixing/engineering duties.

That is a powerful line up. Badu takes their collective skills and lets them loose, creating a lush, retro sound that never stops sounding contemporary.

There is very little here that I would excise. The guest spot by Stephen Marley sounds like a homage to the Fugees inching a bit too closely to “rip-off” to really enjoy (Marley very nearly employs the exact vocal wail that Wyclef Jean is famous for), and the song itself doesn’t have enough to offer to be worth that. And while the album is full of slow-burners, “Orange Moon” is a bit too long to keep my attention.

But Badu takes risks that pay off, like the introspective ten-minute suite “Green Eyes,” in which she touches on the aftermath of her relationship with (allegedly) Andre 3000 from OutKast. The emotional arc of the song is so powerfully echoed by the changes in the musical structure, and the tune is just absolutely gorgeous to boot.

Erykah Badu is a true artist in a time of so much musical dreck, and this album is a crowning achievement in a discography full of great albums. This album is nearly fifteen years old, and it still sounds fresh and vibrant. Timeless albums like Mama’s Gun deserve to be listened to. Badu has given us a glimpse into the past by way of the future. There is a lot to learn in these notes.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Green Eyes
  2. Booty
  3. My Life

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Old/Newish Albums: Elton John’s “Honky Château”

honkychateauHonky Château marks the first album of Elton John to hit number one in the U.S. charts, marking the beginning of streak that would run for a consecutive seven albums. Elton ruled the ’70s, releasing a total of ten albums within a six year timeframe that were either smash hits at the time of release or have come to be regarded as some of the greatest albums of all time.

For my money, this is a good album. It’s not my favorite Elton record, but as far as the quality of the album goes, it’s a more succinct statement on fame and identity than he’d ever make again.

Elton’s known for some huge hits, and one of his biggest is on this record. But aside from the hits, Elton and his writing partner, Bernie Taupin, wrote a lot of very poignant songs that were fantastic pop melodies. Some of these are on this album, but there are also some clunky tunes.

Musically, he’s got a few really awesome spots. Honky Château is really where Elton went from being a writer of quiet sensitive pop melodies to something quite a bit more bombastic. He’d had a few loud songs prior, but he kicks it into overdrive here, with awesome jangly hits like “Honky Cat” and “Hercules.” “Honky Cat” is an awesome song just for its sheer level of orchestration. There’s a lot going on in that chorus, and Elton writes a tune so catchy that everything just blends into a really great swirl of a tune.

This is an album where you can really hear the influence Elton would have on future players. Ben Folds is the prime example. “Honky Cat” has the irreverence in both the lyrics and music that Folds would become a master of in the late ’90s and especially in the early ’00s. I hear the influence most strongly on “Susie (Dramas).” Folds would later emulate Elton very openly with his song “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)” (a direct riff on Elton’s “Bennie And The Jets” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) but “Susie (Dramas)” is a great example of how Elton’s musical influence really permeated into the young piano players starting to learn in the ’70s.

Yet the album isn’t without its missteps. “Mellow” starts off its opening chords sounding like a carbon copy of “Easy” by the Commodores, but quickly morphs into something more melodically interesting. And then there is this terrible electric violin solo right in the middle which just isn’t a pleasant sound.

In a different way, “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself” comes off as an overtly condescending look at teenagers and their overly dramatic ways to get attention. The character in the song decides to commit suicide to try and win more attention. Considering this was written by Taupin when he was 22, it sounds like a whiney young adult complaining about whiney, slightly younger adults.

On top of this, the music has a jangly New Orleans jazz feel to it, and there’s even a tap dance routine going on in the background later in the song. All of this leads to a down-the-nose view of teenage suicide, which is a serious and complex issue. Maybe this is the point Taupin and Elton were making and it just went over my head, but the song just feels crass.

But then you’ve got “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time),” which is an absolute classic. A lot of songs like this one are self-reflexively popular; they’re popular because they’re popular. That doesn’t make sense, but it’s the only explanation for some huge pop hits from the last 50 years of pop music being hits.

“Rocket Man,” however, differs because it is a really fantastic song. Taupin paints this gorgeous picture of an astronaut with no fanfare; this guy is getting ready for his day job just like anybody else, and he’s struggling with how his job is separating him from those things that he really loves in his life. I think it’s a metaphor for the life of fame which he and Elton were quickly finding themselves surrounded by.

And Elton has written an undeniably catchy, indelible melody. I love how he starts the first verse with a very jazzy two-chord refrain and then that major chord leads into the “…high as a kite…” progression. The background vocals in the chorus are also very atmospheric; they’ve so expertly created the feeling of coldness and outer space. There’s a real sense of longing and regret in this melody, a resignation to the choices this man has made and what he’s given up to achieve certain goals over others. It’s weird, but Elton has created a melody that sounds like a spaceship in orbit. Really cool.

This album isn’t without its faults, but sometimes having one powerhouse tune makes all the difference. In this case, “Rocket Man” helps salvage any bad spots on this album, and makes it an essential record to know in Elton’s collection, and definitely one of the more important albums of the ’70s.

Top 3 Tunes:
  1. Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)
  2. Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters
  3. Honky Cat

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Old/Newish Albums: The Decemberists’ “Castaways And Cutouts”

castawaysCastaways And Cutouts is an impressive debut album. It feels self-assured and confident with where the band wanted their music to go.

If you’ve never heard the Decemberists before, this album is a great place to start. It’s got many hallmarks of later Decemberists’ albums: accordions, vocabulary you’d find in an English PhD dissertation, huge worlds of characters built into these songs.

I’d call it literary folk rock. Musically, they sound different than any other band I’ve ever heard. I’m sure this whole old-timey instruments/weird mish-mash of styles has become its own genre, with many bands boldly taking up the mantle of the accordion and playing what could easily be mistaken as pirate music. But for me, the Decemberists were the first band I’d heard do it, and they do it great, and I wouldn’t want to listen to much more of it outside of them.

Lyrically, they’re cut from a similar cloth as Sufjan Stevens or Bob Dylan. Dylan often updated old-time folk songs, while Sufjan uses geographically established cultural pinpoints to write his autobiographical songs (this is done almost exclusively on his two state albums, Michigan and Illinois). The Decemberists take a slightly different approach, creating modern folk songs out of a wide variety of cultures, time periods, geographical locations, etc. Their lyrics aren’t bound to a specific time or place, and this album is just the beginning of that trend for the band.

And the vocabulary used on this record is really quite stunning. Bagatelles, joie de vive, laudanum, fecundity, moribund, indolent, wastrel, balustrade. All words and phrases found on this album. And it’s not like they’re all in one song called “The Thesaurus Song” and the band just went looking for uncommon words to use. Frontman Colin Meloy really does just write this way. This can be hit or miss, depending on your personal preference. It’s not hard for this lyricism to come off as pretentious.

What’s interesting about Castaways And Cutouts is how well they offset that semi-pretentious lyricism with their bucolic musical style. Sure, there are some outlier songs (specifically “A Cautionary Tale,” which sounds like a first draft of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” off of their better album, Picaresque), but for the most part, this album has a very folksy, almost country/western style to it. It keeps the lyrical style from being too over the top. This is done perfectly in “Grace Cathedral Hill.” It’s a slowly-moving ballad, but nowhere near as slow as “Coccoon” and “Clementine” (which suffer from their molasses tempos). “Grace Cathedral Hill” is a sad song that juxtaposes fancy and common language with melancholy country/western slide guitars behind it. It’s very pretty and very well done.

The most interesting thing for me was that with only a cursory knowledge of the album prior to this post, I thought I liked most the songs a lot with five or six listens. Over the course of the last couple weeks though, with more dedicated listening, I’m finding this particular Decemberists album to be a little lacking in my opinion. Most of the songs liked upon initial listening lost some of their verve and I really came to enjoy the few tunes I hadn’t loved before.

Along with the aforementioned “Grace Cathedral Hill,” I also really loved “California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade.” This is a nearly 10 minute tune split into two major parts, and the first half is what I really loved. It’s in some kind of dropped guitar tuning, slow but grand, very reminiscent of the American West Coast and the anthemic nature of the song is just really cool. I feel like the band doesn’t always go full “stadium” in their songs, but “California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade” is a great example of how awesome it is when they do.

As far as the Decemberists catalog goes, this is a solid debut album, pointing very clearly to where the band would go on their future releases. It’s certainly not perfect, but a great place to start as an introduction to the band’s unique blending of high-brow lyricism and all-over musicality.

Top 3 Tunes:
  1. California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade
  2. Grace Cathedral Hill
  3. Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect

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Old/Newish Albums: Curtis Mayfield’s “Got To Find A Way”

mayfieldAs with a lot of classic black soul music, I was led to this album by way of D’Angelo. His first performance in the United States in over a decade was a monumental covers jam at Bonnaroo, backed by several members who would eventually become known as The Vanguard, along with a few others. They played covers alone, no D’ originals, but the set ranged from Led Zeppelin to Ohio Players to The Time. One of these covers was “Mother’s Son,” found on Got To Find A Way.

It’s been interesting to hear the song in the context of the rest of this album, because while D’Angelo and his Superjam band made the song an enticingly funky affair, the original is fairly tame, along with the rest of the album. Mayfield is known for mixing funk and soul really well, but this album falls flat.

There’s just very little memorable here. To be fair, I don’t know Mayfield’s discography well enough to know if this is a trend or not. I know his first few solo albums pretty well, but I don’t know the album immediately preceding or following Got To Find A Way, so I only have a few points of reference off of which to base my thoughts on it. But compared to his 1975 album There’s No Place Like America Today, this is a muddled work. That album (which I reviewed at the beginning of this year) has a distinct vision and identity. The songs coalesce but they don’t blur together, which is exactly what happens on Got To Find A Way. The two real stand outs are “Mother’s Son” and “So You Don’t Love Me,” and even these have their faults.

“So You Don’t Love Me” is the requisite ballad on the album, and I really do like this song a lot. It’s got a nice orchestral flavor to it and Mayfield does those flowery arrangements so well. But again, not groundbreaking. And “Mother’s Son” never quite reaches a real funky groove, although it comes close. I would’ve liked it better if the song was about two minutes shorter and had stuck to the musical theme that’s laid out in the opening. But instead, Mayfield takes it all waaaay down low in the verse, stripping the instrumentation down to a sparse drum beat and the bass riff, with light guitar flourishes thrown in. It saps all the energy that was built in the beginning. Again, this is a funky tune but I feel like it could’ve had so much more fire to it.

So I’m left with the feeling that this isn’t a standout in Mayfield’s catalog. A couple good tunes but he’s got better albums to seek out if you’re interested.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. So You Don’t Love Me
  2. Mother’s Son
  3. Cannot Find A Way

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Old/Newish Albums: Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Self-titled

converted PNM fileI can objectively say that this is a great album, and I can subjectively say that I only think about half of it is good (a healthy amount of this review was contributed by my wife, as she likes this album a lot and had more thoughts on it than I did).

Crosby, Stills & Nash was a huge hit for a debut, and this is a due to a number of reasons:

First, each of these guys had at least somewhat of a built-in fan base, as they’d all come from different bands. David Crosby had been a member of The Byrds, Stephen Stills came from Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash had co-founded The Hollies.

Second, they all brought something different to the musical table. Crosby was writing incisive political/social commentary, Stills was a skilled musician who was rooted in a strong folk and country background, and Nash was particularly adept at writing catchy pop melodies.

Third, these differences coalesced. It’s one thing to be varying musical talents and elements to a group, but it’s rare to see such musical diversity gel so well.

The blend of these three disparate artists really created a unique experience on record. It’s so hard for me to actually pin down a genre for this album, because of how specifically different some of these songs sound from each other. I’d almost argue that this is typical for Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young).  “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” doesn’t sound like “Long Time Gone” (which points much more towards “Woodstock” and the rest of their Deja Vu record), and that doesn’t sound like “49 Bye-Byes.” And then you’ve got “Marrakesh Express,” which doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before.

It seems like a real mish-mash, but somehow it works. There are places where it is sounds complex (“49 Bye-Byes”) and places where simplicity rules (“Helplessly Hoping”). It’s not often too much either way, and just strikes the right balances throughout almost the entire thing.

That’s not to say it’s not without a few duds. “Lady Of The Island” sounds like a poor emulation of Simon & Garfunkel and both “Wooden Ships” and “Long Time Gone” are a little heavy-handed for this album. Maybe it’s just that I dislike most of CS&N’s political work, not just on this album but on their subsequent releases. The places where this album excels are where they stay rooted in acoustic folk blended with a pop flavor.

And their voices, for crying out loud. These three guys blend so perfectly. And the harmonies they’re creating on this album aren’t just your typical “first, third, fifth” chord parts. The melody/harmony blend on this album is far beyond my understanding of music theory, but damn if it doesn’t sound great.

This is demonstrated to best effect on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and maybe I’m not crazy about this album because of how great I think the album opener is. The rest of the album can’t compare with this song.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
  2. 49 Bye-Byes
  3. Helplessly Hoping

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Old/Newish Albums: Bob Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks”

bobdylanMan is this a tough one. Blood On The Tracks is generally considered a masterpiece of Bob Dylan. It wasn’t a huge hit upon initial release but history has been very kind to the record, and it’s often referenced as a cornerstone of the confessional singer-songwriter art.

Which is interesting, because while Dylan’s son, Jakob Dylan, has stated multiple times that this album is about the dissolution of his parents’ relationship, Bob Dylan himself has unequivocally stated that this isn’t a confessional record and was not inspired by the end of his marriage with Sara Dylan.

Whoever you choose to believe, the fact remains that Blood On The Tracks is a sprawling collection of heartbreaking emotions put on record. There are angry songs, sad songs, nostalgic songs, epic tales. Dylan runs the gamut of the rollercoaster one goes through when suffering through the breakdown of a relationship.

And while I can appreciate that to some extent, it’s difficult for me to relate and so this record doesn’t carry the same punch for me. With art, there’s the space where you can appreciate it and the space where you can relate to it. I’d argue the fullest experience comes with both, but Blood On The Tracks only hits me with the former rather than the latter. I just don’t see myself coming back to this album a lot.

And that’s a lot to do with Dylan’s voice. The guy was a voice of a cultural movement in the ’50s and ’60s, but listening with my 2015 ears, his voice just isn’t something I want to spend a lot of time with. There are points on this record where he reaches for a note and you’re not sure if he completely knows what he’s reaching for.

Musically, this is a decently typical Dylan record. It’s pretty stripped down, lots of acoustic instruments and pretty understated backing instrumentation. My favorite example of this on the record is “You’re A Big Girl Now.” It’s a beautiful acoustic number with a chorus of classical guitars. Weirdly, this is the one song where I really like Dylan’s melody and think his voice sounds great. It’s a very relaxed song, and overall, with the exception of “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” and “Tangled Up In Blue,” it’s a pretty slow-paced record. Dylan isn’t rushed in telling you his woes.

I wish I liked this album more. Or least that I understood how it became regarded as such a huge album in Dylan’s body of work, much less a landmark album in the singer-songerwriter genre. I wouldn’t be quick to recommend this to someone who wasn’t already a Dylan fan. But then, if you’re already a Dylan fan, you’ve probably already heard this album.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. You’re A Big Girl Now
  2. Buckets Of Rain
  3. If You See Her, Say Hello

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Old/Newish Albums: Billy Preston’s “The Kids & Me”

billyprestonThis is something of a notable album in this series, because while I don’t know The Kids & Me that well, it does feature one song which I know super well. “Nothing From Nothing” is the #1 Most Played Song in my entire iTunes library and has been for about seven years. In fact, with the first listen of this album for this review, it bumped the play count of “Nothing From Nothing” up to be the first song in my library to break into the 200s.

But the rest of the album certainly shouldn’t be thrown away. It functions as a really great snapshot of Billy Preston’s solo career work. I’d almost argue this album could be viewed as a blueprint for the rest of Preston’s solo work.

Lyrically, this album is pretty wide-ranging. You’ve got love songs, a gospel tune, social themes, and a few instrumental pieces. I don’t think Preston is the greatest wordsmith ever, with some of his songs leaning towards a little too sugary sweet or a pinch cheesy. There are a few heavy-handed spaces on this record, but it’s forgiven because nothing is really awful and the good stuff is really good.

I’ve always found Preston’s strength to be his music. This guy was an unbelievable keys player, starting his career at a very early age (appeared in a W.C. Handy biopic at age 12, met the Beatles while playing organ on tour with Little Richard at age 16, released his first solo album a year later, etc.). He played with a lot of heavy hitters throughout the ’60s, culminating in contributing heavily to the Beatles’ final studio album, Let It Be. He was so influential in those recording sessions that he actually kept the Beatles from completely fracturing and he finished the record with them. He is one of the few people referred to colloquially as the “fifth Beatle” (John Lennon actually suggested to the other Beatles that Preston officially join the band) and is the only musician co-credited on a official Beatles-sactioned release (the single “Get Back” is credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston”).

So Preston had the musical chops. This album displays those really well. For my money, the apex of Billy Preston’s keyboard expertise is “Nothing From Nothing,” but there is a lot of really fantastic keys playing on this record. Preston’s instrumentals are a testament to his forward thinking, by featuring a Clavinet (or soundalike instrument) all over this record to create some really bizarre, funky sounds (“Struttin'” sounds like mosquitos in your ear). These instrumentals are some heavily funk-inspired jams.

But again, “Nothing From Nothing” is the pinnacle, both of Preston’s songwriting and his musical skills. This is an overtly happy sounding song, with one of the best chord progressions and coolest chord voicings I’ve ever heard. There is a bouncing ragtime rhythm and horns that add so much flavor to the tune. But Preston’s piano solo is absolutely insane. It’s like his two hands are speaking different linguistic dialects. His left hand is steadily pounding the rhythmic chords on the beat while his right hand is banging out an intricate solo that is rhythmically all over the place. It’s a masterpiece solo and adds energy to an already really energetic tune. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of this song.

There are some other notable tunes on this album, like “You Are So Beautiful,” which is a pretty cheesy song but important as it is the original version of the tune, written by Preston, which was later covered to huge success by Joe Cocker. Also great on the album is “Tell Me You Need My Loving,” which is a partial rewrite of an earlier Preston outtake tune called “All That I’ve Got” and kicks the album off in a really funky, groovy fashion.

Overall, this is a pretty good album, not just for the fantastic “Nothing From Nothing,” but also due to the representative picture of Preston’s solo work. If you only get your hands on one Billy Preston album, make sure it’s this one.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Nothing From Nothing
  2. Tell Me You Need My Loving
  3. St. Elmo

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