Statler: Well, it was good.
Waldorf: Ah, it was very bad.
Statler: Well, it was average.
Waldorf: Ah, it was in the middle there.
Statler: Ah, it wasn’t that great.
Waldorf: I kind of liked it.”
-‘The Muppet Show’.
I’m Mark, the Music & Film Specialist at Wellington City Libraries (I also run the Libraries’ Wellington Music Facebook page). Every month my colleague Neil and I cast our eye over the new material we have been buying for the Music collection at our CBD Te Awe library. We pick out some interesting titles across a range of music genres, and try to limit our reviews to a few lines only. Can we encapsulate an entire album in just a couple of lines? [Ed. This is probably unlikely at this point]. Do we actually know anything about new music? Or, are we just too old to understand what most of this is banging on about? Read on to find out…
Live / Hathaway, Lalah
Mark: Live collection from the five time Grammy award winner, and daughter of soul legend Donny Hathaway, who is performing a tribute to the music of her father for one night only with the NZSO as part of the Wellington Jazz Festival on October 19th. She has a warm, rich, mellow voice with a tibre similar to her father’s but, more importantly, possesses the same sense of spiritual yearning and earthy presence based around real singing and artistry. Recorded at the historic Troubadour Theater in Los Angeles, the same place where her father recorded half of his seminal 1972 album, she melds R&B and jazz elements, covers and originals, and plenty of old-school 70s soul vibes. Sure to be a great Festival show.
Neil: Despite being a winner of numerous Grammy awards, Lalah Hathaway is still, amazingly, not that particularly well known outside R&B circles. However, to those in the know, her live performances are major events and totally unmissable. This re-release of her 2015 live album more than demonstrates why; her mesmerising, scintillating, emotive and technically perfect performance, coupled with her silk-smooth soulful voice, shine through the album
The song is you / Rava, Enrico
Mark: Italy has probably the strongest native jazz scene outside of America and trumpeter Enrico Rava, along with pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, are perhaps the most well known figures internationally. This ECM release pairs Rava with American pianist Fred Hersch for a set of moody originals and classic standards. The album straddles the line: with atonal improvisation and straight-ahead playing, mixing together on both the originals and the standards to create an ongoing tension. It’s not easy background music by any means, as the tracks are full of melodic invention and searching abstraction. Accessible but also challenging at the same time. Reminded me a bit of the classic meeting between Chet Baker & Paul Bley.
Neil: ‘The song is you opens’ with a track that has strong links to the mellow jazz of musicians like Chet Baker. But, just as you think you have a handle on the album, it quickly moves on to more improvisational territory without ever totally losing sight of its late night ultra-cool jazz harmonic core. ‘The song is you’ ventures out into slightly more unfamiliar territory than the opening track might suggest, making the album its own unique self, rather than a homage to the past jazz greats that the musicians are clearly referencing.
Cure the jones / Mamas Gun
Mark: Mamas Gun are a UK soul group, based around singer/composer/producer Andy Platts, and ‘Cure the jones’ is their fifth album. If you thought that retro-soul re-creations were strictly a US affair this will change your mind, as this 5-piece London outfit delivers a massive slice of Delfonics/Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions/Bill Withers styled 70s soul worship. If you listened to the recent Silk Sonic album & thought ‘this sounds great, if only they weren’t so obviously taking the p***’ then this is the album for you to listen to next. Sublime harmonies, funky rhythms, sweeping strings and lush arrangements; these songs tackle themes of love and intimacy equally as well as those of social issues and unrest. Impressive.
Neil: The fifth release from the UK based soul outfit Mamas Gun finds them very much in classic 70’s soul territory. The lyrics are more up to date, with contemporary issues and the state of the world explored. In places, their classic 70’s soul, rock, and doo-wop sounds are reminiscent of the Delfonics or The Stylistics. It’s a lush and deep soul album, with multi-layered vocals and carefully orchestrated music produced using vintage equipment to help capture that sound. A thoroughly convincing recreation of the soul music of that time that will win them many fans.
Step on step / Stepney, Charles
Mark: A posthumous collection of home recordings from Charles Stepney, a legend in R&B circles as a producer and arranger who helped define the sound of Chicago soul, who had big hits with bands like Earth Wind & Fire, The Dells, Marlena Shaw, & Minnie Riperton’s influential band Rotary Connection, among others. Stepney passed away suddenly aged only 46, and while his work was sampled heavily by generations of Hip-Hop artists he remained a largely unknown figure. The music collected here was created by Stepney alone, a series of instrumental sketches with a few full tracks with vocals, recorded in the basement of his home in Chicago during the late ’60s, early ’70s. Despite a lot of these tracks being demos, some of which would go on to be hits, there is a lot happening with overdubbed piano lines, keys, vibes & drums. His work is so deeply melodic, it’s unsurprising his fans ranged from Burt Bacharach to Elton John to Stevie Wonder. An artist with a singular vision who ranks up there with Thom Bell or Norman Whitfield as a producer, whose lasting legacy is already getting further exploration.
Neil: Legendary R&B producer Charles Stepney died tragically at the age of 45. Before his death he helped define the classic Chicago soul sound, working closely with the likes of The Rotary Connection and Earth Wind and Fire. His output would subsequently be heavily sampled by a whole host of rappers. ‘Step on step’ is an anthology of previously unreleased demo recordings, discovered by his daughters, that displays the intimate side to his music. In the recordings you can hear the blueprints to many classic songs rather than the finished pieces themselves, while some tracks are more complete than others in form. It’s a treasure trove of stems and ideas he would have subsequently gone out and formed into complete tracks, and a fascinating insight into one artist’s creative process.
King Scratch : musical masterpieces from the Upsetter ark-ive / Perry, Lee
Mark: One of the greatest Jamaican producers of all time, his music transformed Reggae forever. To mark the first anniversary of his passing, this posthumous box features material that spans his entire career. Trying to distill it down to two CDs was obviously too difficult, so in addition to this 2CD set, there is also an expanded set that features 4LPs & 4CDs of material. Compiled by Reggae authority David Katz, it also features an extensive overview of Perry’s career and features a lot of rare 12″ and 7″ mixes. Even if you are familiar with his work, there’s plenty to appreciate here.
Neil: For many artists, a four CD Box set would be sufficient to cover all the key areas of their work. But for the late, great, and hugely influential Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, this box set only manages to cover just one aspect of his vast body of work. ‘King Scratch’ focuses mainly on his work as a producer during the 1960’s and 1970’s, when Perry was one of the most important and in demand Reggae producers around. As such, it features mainly 7-inch single mixes aimed at the mainstream Reggae market, rather than his more experimental or adventurous Dub work. That said, there are many unusual and revolutionary elements incorporated into these songs, and many timeless reggae classics in the compilation, as well as a number of rare tracks, some unreleased outside of Jamaica. It’s a nice combination, making it of great interest to both novice and seasoned Reggae fans.
Doggerel / Pixies (Musical group)
Mark: This is the 4th album since The Pixies reunited with 2014’s collection of EPs Indie Cindy, with Head Carrier following in 2016, then Beneath the Eyrie in 2019. No band could claim as big a legacy and lasting influence as The Pixies, and so starting again without Kim Deal was always going to be an uphill climb. Observing this new journey was often a painful experience, but each album was better than the previous effort, culminating in ‘Doggerel’, where the band seems more comfortable than before in melding a more conventional indie rock sound, with some of the idiosyncratic music and lyrical content of the past. There’s still a quiet menace and strangeness beneath their work, but the raw screaming power has been left behind, perhaps fitting for the now decidedly middle aged band. Supposedly begun as material earmarked for a retro-Americana solo album by Black Francis, reshaped for the band it presents an engaging, sophisticated, roadhouse rock-along, slow burn.
Neil: For many the Pixies created modern alternative rock, rescuing it from the indulgences of mainstream rock of the time. Their loud/quiet/loud/quiet structure and lyrics: a potent mix of lust, surrealism, Latin-American themes, Old Testament Biblical tropes and sci-fi, leave a big legacy to live up to. ‘Doggerel’ is their eight album, the fourth in their reunion configuration, and is easily the best of their albums under the new line-up. All the vintage trademark sounds and themes are in there, plus a measured and more matured approach to the songs. It’s a great album that will definitely please fans, but as totally entrancing and accomplished as their classic gold standard albums of the past? Perhaps! Why not listen and decide for yourself.
Revenge of the she-punks
Mark: Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot is an acclaimed 2019 book by punk musician & journalist Vivien Goldman. The punk genre, perhaps more than any other, embraces the political power of popular music, with its critique of culture and push for change and recognition. The book told the story of female punk via thirty-eight songs from women all over the world, not just Western musicians, and while this new compilation was inspired by the book, it can’t quite cover that same breadth of material. However, it does a pretty good job to showcase a representative selection and shows how women adopted the genre for completely different reasons than men: using the music to create self expression while marginalised and disenfranchised, critiquing repressive social and cultural norms, carving out demands around identity, protesting, as well as creating supportive local communities. A great tribute to female musicians whose music shaped the environments around them, as well as making some great music.
Neil: Vivien Goldman “ the punk professor” was a pioneering punk musician herself. Her 2019 book Revenge of the she-punks takes a long overdue feminist look at the pivotal and central role women took in the musical history of the movement, and especially why punk proved to be a particularly liberating art form for women. The punk movement was always an approach to life, art and society; its music always embraced a much wider musical spectrum than the stereotypical loud, fast, three-chord power song, and this was especially the case with female punk musicians and bands. This new compilation demonstrates female punks boundary smashing ethics to the full. The release spreads its net widely: we have artists as diverse as X Ray Spex, Grace Jones, Patti Smith, The Selecter, Blondie and Neneh Cherry, to name but a few. The strong links between Punk and Reggae and Ska are explored, as well as many other musical genres. It’s an awesome compilation in its own right, and the fact that it shines a different light of the movement is wonderful to hear.
Box Set Pick:
Yankee hotel foxtrot [deluxe] / Wilco
Mark: This super deluxe edition poses the question: ‘Is a single album really worth an 8 CD set of extended material’? So much has been written about this album already, and some of the surrounding events were captured on film, but few modern rock albums have managed to achieve the ‘Behind the Music’ aura of drama that shrouded the creation of ‘Yankee hotel foxtrot’. One of the most complete box sets ever assembled to excavate an album’s creation from demos: to works in progress, to the final released product, to its live counterparts and it’s a journey along many (many) roads not taken. Each song seems to have been tried in a myriad of genres and arrangements, all of which could have resulted in completely different albums: from the style of their original country origins, to the power-pop of previous album Summerteeth, to a more abstract sample driven aesthetic. There is plenty of material that never made the final track list at all, making for a fascinating insight into the creative process for hardcore fans. A great hardback book also accompanies the set, with interviews and archival quotes telling the warts and all story of the albums evolution.
Neil: Much has been written about the creation of Wilco’s fourth album ‘Yankee Hotel foxtrot’, indeed there is a whole mythology that has grown up to surround its creation. There were major arguments with the record label, who initially refused to release it. The band entered an almost hermetic existence when they were recording the songs. They also ended up sacking their first drummer in the process, all documented in the film I am trying to break your heart. Since its release, however, the album quickly came to be regarded as one of the greatest albums of the 2000’s; it’s an atmospheric, arty and complex work that employed the bands own take on psychedelic music, with more experimental components than previous outings. When it was released, it went on to become Wilco’s best-selling album, and this super deluxe version has the remastered original album, demos, alternative versions of tracks and rare live recordings. Rolling Stone made it number three in their 100 best albums of that decade, and Pitchfork gave this deluxe release a perfect score of 10.