Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Album Review: Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man In The Universe (2012)

Bobby Womack’s colourful life story is so rich with melodrama, tragedy, and ultimately triumph, it’s not too difficult to imagine that sooner or later a warts and all blockbusting biopic will be in the offing. It will probably take someone of Spike Lee’s eminence to do it any real justice, but whatever form it takes, there won’t be a shortage of raw source material to draw from.

From his early life as a child guitar prodigy within a very musical family, to his troublesome early years and the controversy surrounding his marriage to mentor Sam Cooke’s widow. From the lost years of substance-induced oblivion, and the occasional aborted comeback, right on through to 2012, and this, the release of his latest album, The Bravest Man In The Universe. Throw in a recent colon cancer scare, and you soon realise that Womack, in addition to possessing one of soul music’s more distinctive voices, is the archetypal soul survivor.

Yes, the 2012 version of that voice is to all intent and purpose, rather shot, or at the very most now only a mere echo of what it once was. But soul was never about the perfect singing voice. It is about a feeling, an attitude, a struggle … soul, like almost every other genre, is simply an extension of the blues. And besides, ask anyone who has ever felt the full force of Womack’s seminal ‘Across 110th Street’ whether or not Womack’s take on soul has to be smooth to hit the mark. It is that gruff, lived-in vocal that gives him his power.

Now 68, and still battling serious health issues, Womack has launched yet another comeback with The Bravest Man In The Universe. Unfortunately for him, critics haven’t been overly kind thus far. The late Gil Scott Heron’s 2010 release I’m New Here set a high benchmark for any old-school soul survivor attempting a post-Millennium rebirth, and the fact that Womack also collaborated with I’m New Here producer Richard Russell on The Bravest Man means comparison between the two pieces of work is never far away … for better or for worse. A backlash that reeks of lazy, “done it, already-got-the-tee”, closed mindedness.  

Plus, the whole old-style-soul meets modern studio technology debate further exacerbated unfavourable comparison between Womack’s latest work and that of Gil Scott Heron. Jamie xx produced a feted remix version of I’m New Here (titled We’re New Here), which somehow seems to have put the spotlight firmly on the contribution of The Bravest Man’s co-producer Damon Albarn. Was Albarn simply trying to emulate his younger indie contemporary with his own dalliance into old style soul? … critics can be an unfairly cynical bunch at times and this angle has been explored relentlessly by those seeking to box up Womack’s effort.

But that’s surely the wrong way to look at it. Why not take The Bravest Man In The Universe for what it is? Consider it on its own merits? Why always the need to qualify and compare? Because that’s what critics do. I find myself doing it all the time. None of that stuff will have been important to Womack though, and I doubt it barely registers in terms of Albarn’s own motives. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Albarn has been down this road already, long before Jamie xx would have even conceived of such a concept. Albarn’s Gorillaz project has been nothing if not soulful and funky, and let’s not overlook Womack’s cameo role there either.

The Bravest Man In The Universe is a fine collaboration in its own right. There’s a real feeling of self examination and of possible redemption on the album. Womack reflects back on certain events in his life; he apologises, he asks for a morsel of forgiveness, and he seeks equal portion of rhyme and reason. It feels like it comes from deep within. Womack is evidently still searching for some form of peace, and when you wrap up so many emotional extremes in such a lived-in frayed-around-the-edges voice, it becomes quite compelling listening at times. Almost like watching someone you love progressively recover from a bad car crash, and willing them on every step of the way.

Albarn, along with Russell, does add a fresh production twist, yet not all of the tracks work. The album can feel a little uneven at first, a little front-loaded, but the highlights feel honest and perhaps even genuinely cathartic for Bobby Womack. Most of those high points can be found in the opening four tracks: the title track – an opening statement of intent pinned against a backdrop of pulsating bass and murky keyboard. The reflective ‘Please Forgive My Heart’. The interlude-like gospel tinged ‘Deep River’. And ‘Dayglo Reflection’ – a slightly oddball yet highly palatable hook up with Lana Del Rey.

The rest all just feels a bit meh, like the bolt had been shot in the opening sequence of tracks, and thereafter Womack struggles to retain the same sense of momentum.

So it isn’t The Poet - my first exposure to Womack’s work, several decades ago now - and it isn't as strong as any of his other more acclaimed pieces of work, but neither is it the disaster zone some tastemakers would have you believe. The Bravest Man In The Universe is simply Bobby Womack, soul survivor, getting by with a little help from some younger friends; Bobby Womack doing the one thing that he still does better than anything else. What’s not to like?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

80s Dance Classic: Donald Banks – Status Quo

Agit-rap? From fairly early on in the life of Hip hop, this one has a real go-go feel to it. Possibly outta Washington. Possibly not. From 1983, featuring a gruff-voiced jazzy kinda guy who from all accounts did very little else of note during his criminally underground recording career. Not to be confused with Don Banks, the Aussie dude, an actual jazz guy. But then you probably wouldn’t have made that connection anyway. One of them is clearly black. I loved this track for about a year after it turned up on a much loved mixtape circa 1986. And yes kids, that’s an actual mixtape of the antique cassette variety. Ask your Mum. Here’s 10 minutes of agitagogoprotohoprap from a funky guy with a fairly large chip on his shoulder:

Sunday, September 9, 2012

80s Dance Classic: General Caine – Where’s The Beef

Did somebody mention beef? Getting back to true “lost” classics, here’s General Caine’s ‘Where’s The Beef’ from 1984. Pure funk. George Clinton-esque, even. The banned ‘Crack Killed Applejack’ was probably the band’s (aka General Kane) most high profile track, but quite why this one remained largely ignored by all but only the most committed of clubbers, I’ll never know.

Friday, September 7, 2012

80s Dance Classic: Gary Clail & The On-U Sound Syndicate – Beef

I’m cheating a little bit here. Calling a track from the early ‘90s an “80s dance classic”. But I can do that. I’m allowed … it’s my blog. So jumping forward a little here, and in keeping with the On-U theme of recent posts, this is loudhailer man Gary Clail and the late great Bim Sherman with ‘Beef’. Just for anyone out there who doesn’t like the idea of eating beef. All one of you. This is the dancefloor geared ‘Future Mix’. The original album version was much more menacing. Slower paced, with better bass. But it also featured spooky abattoir sound effects – so I’ll spare you that rather haunting version. Hey, I’m all heart.

Oh, and I've just noticed that this is my 50th post to everythingsgonegreen ... now all I need is a few comments. *Holds breath* ...

Album Review: Adrian Sherwood – Survival And Resistance (2012)

The new Adrian Sherwood album, Survival And Resistance, is not quite what I was expecting. I’ve had a copy of it for nearly two weeks now and after listening to it a number of times, in a variety of different settings, encompassing a range of moods, I have to admit I’m finding it quite hard work.

It just goes to show: you can be a devoted fan, and know an artist’s work intimately over a prolonged period – in this case nearly three decades, but you can’t always predict what they’ll come up with next.

Okay, so he’s not universally recognised as a solo artist, and his best work has always been as a producer – primarily for his own On-U Sound imprint – but his two previous “solo” albums employed the same template of hard industrial-strength dub with a roots reggae tinge, and I’m genuinely surprised to see his third outing deviate so far from that tried and trusted formula.

That’s not always a bad thing of course. After all, change, artistic evolution, and progression beyond set boundaries are all things well worth embracing. If I’m honest, what I’m really struggling with in terms of Survival And Resistance is the notion that all of my own preconceptions about Mr Sherwood, and this album in particular, were so wide of the mark when it finally arrived. I don’t feel let down by it in any way, just um, a little bit challenged.
Billed in some quarters as Sherwood’s response to the 2011 London riots, not to mention wider global social and economic decay, I had fully expected Survival And Resistance to come out firing on all cylinders – with something loud, chaotic, and unrepentantly heavy. Or perhaps, given the album’s title, some hard-edged roots flavoured protest riddims.

What we get, however, is something far more mild and mellow. Something not unlike the sort of thing an ambitious mid-Nineties electronica act would have produced. Let’s just say that Survival And Resistance is more Massive Attack, or mid-tempo Primal Scream, than it is Tackhead or Pop Group (to name acts associated with Sherwood in the past).

My first listen was via headphones while walking along a deserted beach on a cold wintery Sunday morning, and I swear it was only the biting wind on my face and the volume key on my pod that kept me from nodding off. My second listen was also via headphones, this time on a crowded peak-hour commuter train, and yes ... this time I did actually fall asleep. Probably not quite what the good Mr Sherwood had intended ... this album is so laidback it’s practically horizontal.

It is also an album drenched with what feels like a super-sized dose of deep paranoia. George Oban’s bass provides an almost menacing pulse throughout, underpinning everything else. Only when you reach the end of the album’s ten-track 40-minute duration do you realise just how relentless and pivotal to everything the bass has been. When combined with the knob-twiddling and electronic wizardry of long-time Sherwood collaborator Crocodile, it helps create a dark lingering tension and a genuine sense of foreboding as the album progresses.

And if I describe it (above) as being mild and mellow by Sherwood’s standards, it’s merely because the whole thing is a brooding mass of strange and unusually low key experimental noise – it isn’t angry, or overly aggressive in any way. It isn’t in-yer-face. It doesn’t shout its underlying political and/or social manifesto; it simply seeks to push, prod, and prompt the listener on a cerebral level. It requires patience (and clearly, multiple repeat listens) before all of its subtle charms can be fully revealed.

Those charms include the sheer variety of sounds and instrumentation on offer – from all manner of electronic burpy and bleepy bits, to piano, synth, violin, cello, harp, and of course the trademark bluesy guitar work of two more veteran Sherwood collaborators, Crucial Tony and Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald. McDonald also contributes keyboards, and at times the downbeat nature of Survival And Resistance is reminiscent of McDonald’s best output under the ‘Little Axe’ alias, albeit less blues-based.

And naturally, there’s the full range of Sherwood’s unique brand of echo and dubby FX to indulge in. The production is practically faultless – just as you’d expect from any piece of work coming out of On-U Sound’s studio base in Ramsgate ... aka “The Care Home” (snigger – Ed).
There’s not much in the way of lyrical content. Vocals feature on just a couple of tracks – another old friend of Sherwood’s, Ghetto Priest, works some magic on ‘Trapped Here’, but I’m less impressed with ‘We Flick The Switch’, sung by someone called Lilli. That track feels almost contrived and rather superficial. More compelling is the trippy ‘U R Sound’, which features a number of (acid guru) Timothy Leary voice samples, and it probably rates as the best track on the album.

So yeah, that’s Survival And Resistance. For all of the positives, I’m still finding it quite hard work. In some ways – despite the presence of a strong supporting cast, and my own inability to grasp it immediately – it does feel like Sherwood’s most personal solo work yet. Where on previous albums he’s opted for a variety of vocalists to get his message across, this time around he’s largely content to let the beats do the talking.

Stand-outs: ‘Trapped Here’, ‘U R Sound’, ‘Starship Bahia’, ‘Two Semitones and a Raver’, and ‘Last Queen of England’.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Album Review: Keith Le Blanc – Stranger Than Fiction (1989)

As a follow-up to my post earlier today – see immediately below – I reviewed Keith Le Blanc’s Stranger Than Fiction album a few years back for another website. I thought I’d reproduce that review here ...
Keith Le Blanc loves percussion. More specifically, Keith Le Blanc loves the drums. And drumming. And sampling, sequencing, cutting, and pasting. And he’s the man behind some of the earliest, most primitive, and most innovative drum machine-programming known to man. Keith Le Blanc’s obsession at times borders on genius. All of those passions, and more, are evident on what I believe to be his most consistent piece of work to date; the 1989 album Stranger Than Fiction. (Although in saying that, his 1986 release Major Malfunction is more often cited by critics as his landmark work).
Well-travelled producer extraordinaire Le Blanc first made a name for himself as part of the original Sugarhill scene back in the early Eighties. He and the likes of Doug Wimbish and Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald - both of whom also feature on here - worked closely with Grandmaster Flash and various other early iconic rap artists. If I’m not mistaken, it was Le Blanc who provided the beats behind ‘The Message’ and he himself released one of the true electro classics from that era - ‘Malcolm X:No Sell Out’ - on the then-fledgling Tommy Boy label.

From there Le Blanc, Wimbish, and McDonald all went on to form the backbone behind the acclaimed hard dub/funk-orientated Tackhead, their output through the late Eighties and early Nineties being quite prolific - some of their best stuff coming out on Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label. Le Blanc & co. have also released work under a variety of other aliases (see: Fats Comet, Strange Parcels, among others) and Le Blanc himself has been quietly working his way around the fringes of a whole spectrum of different electronic genres during two decades of huge technological expansion. Quite simply, the man’s a legend. Or at least he should be.
Although Stranger Than Fiction might be considered slightly flawed due to some of the sudden, almost cut-throat changes of pace it inflicts upon the listener, it is - rather perversely - an album perhaps best listened to in one sitting; that every track is well worth listening to means that you’d only end up missing some of the best bits if you attempted to pick and mix to any great extent. Le Blanc samples and name checks a vast array of historic and iconic figures, everybody from Einstein (on ‘Einstein’ - oddly enough) to Count Basie (on ‘Count This’) to Lenny Bruce (on the superb and very funny closing track ‘Comedy Of Errors’). Vocalists - sampled or otherwise - include Gary Clail and the late Andy Fairley, while Le Blanc again surrounds himself with a first-class posse of top session men who provide the multiple layers atop of his eclectic beats.
What we end up with is an album that almost defies description; moments of what can only be described as pounding industrial Hip hop followed by interludes of ambient spaced-out synth - such as on the track ‘Men In Capsules’. There’s even a jazzy vibe to it in parts. A little bit of everything in fact. It’s also an album that (lyrically) doesn’t shy away from the various political and social issues of the day - thanks to plenty of clever sampling - but mostly it’s an album that contains a helluva lot of exceptional soundscaping work from the master himself. The fact remains - for all of his talent, for all that his work has had an enormous amount of influence across several of the more obscure genres in existence, and for all that he has worked with some of the very best names in the business, Keith Le Blanc is still relatively unknown (in a commercial sense).
Now, that really is stranger than fiction.

80s Dance Classic: Malcolm X - No Sell Out

Keith Le Blanc has spent the best part of the past 30 years flying beneath the mainstream music radar, but to many he’s considered one of the more influential beat-makers around. Whether it was his role in the formation and development of Hip hop as part of the legendary Sugarhill Gang (or at least, as part the Sugarhill label’s house band), or the work he’s produced as part of the industrial funk outfit Tackhead, Le Blanc has been at the cutting edge of dance music evolution for more than a quarter of a century. Yet he remains largely in the background, faceless, anonymous, and pretty much unheralded. I suspect he likes it that way, content to just keep doing what he does so well ... drumming, programming, sequencing, and sampling ... (plus doubtlessly a whole lot of other things ending with ‘ing’). Le Blanc has his own label, and he’s released a couple of extraordinary “solo” albums over the years but here’s something he did way back in 1983 for the Tommy Boy label:

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Just Browsing: Free stuff on Soundcloud ... Part Five: Dub Terminator

Dub Terminator is Auckland-based Chris McLay, a DJ/producer of some renown locally, but also a man very much in demand internationally when it comes to his remix and production work.

Dub Terminator has collaborated with a virtual who’s who of the international dub scene over the course of the past three years or so – whether he’s been applying production gloss to any number of earthy roots dubplates, or producing stuff with a more in-the-moment stepper-style twist, DT’s ability to transcend genres is the key to much of his prolific output. Most of which is already out there and available for free on Soundcloud (in fact, a range of sites).

In 2011, Dub Terminator’s ‘Big Up Riddim’ hit No.1 on Beatport’s reggae and dub chart, plus he’s already released a couple of albums – the superb 2010 collaboration with High Freequency, Soul Island Vol 1, and last year’s Babylon Annihilation. Pretty much all of it comes highly recommended.

Check it out:

80s Dance Classic: Laid Back - White Horse

It’s probably a bit rich to label a track that spent three weeks at No.1 on the US dance charts as a “lost” classic, but Danish synthpop duo Laid Back hit an unlikely peak with the now largely forgotten ‘White Horse’ back in 1983. Some would even argue that this track – originally a b-side – was another influential precursor to the techno scene that would dominate dancefloors across the globe by the end of the decade. It was probably only the obvious drug reference that held it back from wider (chart and radio) exposure at the time, but the 12-inch mix remains a sought after classic. Here’s the abbreviated version: