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Sturgill Simpson – Sound & Fury

I saw Sturgill Simpson perform live in the fall of 2017 in support of his A Sailor’s Guide Earth album. The surprise of that live show was that Simpson rocked and shredded. He played some seriously heavy guitar. Sound & Fury is a heavy guitar album, but also with some cool keyboard flourishes. It reminds me of the grimy sound of the Black Keys and the oddball gritty swagger of ZZ Top.

After listening to the album a few times I saw this mini-review from NPR. I wish I wrote this:

Sturgill Simpson makes All-American music, and on his fourth album, that means garage metal happily infected by hip-hop, soaked in California sunshine and lit on fire by the blues. The man once dubbed country’s savior goes full metal jacket on this wild reimagination of Southern rock inspired by the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and his own lifetime exploration of rugged individualism. — Ann Powers npr.

Wow – not much more can be said. But I will try to add a bit more.

First, there is a companion anime movie on Netflix.

What a thrill it must be for Simpson, an anime fan, to be in a position to commission an anime film to augment his music. The Sound & Fury album is not a soundtrack to a movie – the movie is a “vision-track” to the album. I can only imagine Sturgill geeking out about this. I am not much of an anime fan, but I found this a pretty cool way to consume the album.

Simpson started his recording career with a pretty conventional country album High Top Mountain in 2013. He got a little weirder, but it was still country, with his next album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014). That album made it clear Simpson was not going to be constrained by Nashville conventions. But his next album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, made it clear Simpson could and would transcend genres. He did not play country music, he played Sturgill Simpson music. It won a Grammy for Country Album of the Year, but it was also nominated as Album of the Year (losing to Adele’s 25).

In 2016 I wrote:

“Simpson is swinging for the fences. Marvin Gaye elevated Motown to a new art form with his concept album What’s Going On. Simpson is doing the same to Nashville here.”

With Sound & Fury, Simpson makes the case that he is going to have a Neil Young type career: throwing knuckleballs that have wicked movement. The album mixes guitar and keyboards – one moment heavy metal and the next bouncy bubblegum. And somehow those juxtapositions work and are oddly seamless.

He has another Neil Young feature: Simpson can play some gorgeous distorted guitar. To put it bluntly, as Simpson does on the inner sleeve album credits, “**FUCK YOUR SPEAKERS**” I recommend you do that – enjoy.

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Crate Digger’s Gold: Return To Forever – Where Have I Known You Before

One album that turned me on to jazz was Return To Forever’s (RTF) Romantic Warrior (1976). For whatever reason I did not explore RTF’s back catalog – especially No Mystery (1975) and Where Have I Known You Before (1974) which had the same incredible lineup as Romantic Warrior:

  • Chic Corea – keyboards
  • Stanley Clarke – bass
  • Al Di Meola – guitar
  • Lenny White – drums

In hindsight, it seems odd I did not explore the catalog since I got seriously hooked on Al Di Meola’s solo albums on Columbia in the late 70s (Elegant Gypsy and Casino) and Di Meola was such a big part of the RTF sound. It is only recently, via dollar crates, that I have been properly introduced to a couple RTF Polydor albums with the Romantic Warrior lineup: No Mystery and Where Have I Known You Before. They are both fantastic.

The Corea/Clarke/Di Meola/White version of RTF leans toward prog-rock mainly due to Corea’s arsenal of keys (acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, Hohner clavinet, Yamaha electric organ, ARP Odyssey and Minimoog) and young Di Meola’s (he was just 21 at the release of Where Have I Known You Before) flashy rock guitar.

The album opens with Clarke’s “Vulcan World” which showcases all the players. It is RTF at its kinetic best. This is show-off music and it works because these cats have the goods to show-off.

Next is a short acoustic interlude, Corea’s “Where Have I Loved You Before” that joins the hyper “Vulcan World” to the slower and lyrical, but equally spectacular, “The Shadow Of Lo” composed by Lenny White.

Corea’s acoustic piano, “Where Have I Danced With You Before,” creates another interlude to “Beyond The Seventh Galaxy” another full band show-off piece with a strong prog feel.

Side two opens with “Earth Juice” which is a funky jam (all four band members are given writing credit). Di Meola gets the bulk of the solo time.

“Where Have I Known You Before” is the final acoustic piano interlude.  The album ends with “Song To The Pharaoh Kings” which is a fourteen and half minute tour de force. It sounds like the most formally composed piece on the album. All four players strut their stuff, but Corea is the main event with his wall of keyboards throughout the song (which is more of a suite).

If the thought of prog infused jazz with highflying soloists grounded by melody sounds appealing, give this album a spin. It is easy to find in the dollar bins and is on all the streaming services.

Bon Iver i, i

Bon Iver is one of the more adventurous music acts that I am a fan of. The band is impossible to assign to a genre. Is it folk, pop, rock, hip hop, electronica, ambient, jazz, chamber music, etc.? Wikipedia suggests Folktronica. Although this is a totally unique band, I hear lots of influences, for example, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Hornsby (who it turns out plays on i, i) and Prince.

Bon Iver came out of the gate with an original sound in 2007 with For Emma, Forever Ago. Over the years they have continuously improved their sound without losing originality.  i, i sound is accessible, not because the band has sold-out or watered down their art, but because they have pulled the pop world into their gravity.

Per Justin Vernon (the guiding force in the band) says this about i, i:

“It feels very much like the most adult record, the most complete,” explains Vernon. “It feels like when you get through all this life, when the sun starts to set, and what happens is you start gaining perspective. And then you can put that perspective into more honest, generous work.”

I like this album more than their last album (22, A Million). That album was a major shift from the folk sound of their prior two albums to a harsher more electronic sound. i, i sounds like the perfect reconciliation of their first two albums with 22, A Million. I guess that 22, A Million is going to sound better to my ears after i, i.

If the thought of gentle but adventurous music sounds appealing to you, I recommend you give i, i a listen.

Brandi Carlile – Minnesota State Fair 8/31/19

I first got turned on to Brandi Carlile when her song “The Story” was a hit in 2007. I bought the album but did not keep up with her career until her break-out album By the Way, I Forgive You came out last year. I did not fully appreciate her until she performed “The Joke” on this year’s Grammys. She absolutely killed it with that performance.

After that, she was on my list of must-see acts. So we went to see her at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand on a beautiful Saturday night.

I have seen a lot of legends at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand: Dylan, Emmylou, Chuck Berry, Flaming Lips, Allman Brothers, etc. Now I can add another: Brandi Carlile. She is a charismatic and inspired performer with a natural and genuine connection to her audience. I don’t think it was a schtick, she seemed genuinely thrilled to be playing in front of the 13,137 paying fans at the Fair (her last performance at the Fair was at one of the free stages).

Carlile played a nice sampling of her catalog with emphasis on By the Way, I Forgive You. She did some cool covers, including Joni, Led Zeppelin and Elton. I judge a good concert by goosebumps and Carlile delivered plenty of goosebumps.

One of the interesting things about Brandi Carlile is that she is not a solo act, but a band. The core of that band is Brandi and the Hanseroth twins (brothers Phil and Tim). That trio has been working together for nearly twenty years. Their chemistry on stage was obvious. The band has evolved from clubs to theaters, but the Grandstand is at the arena level. The band easily translated to the big time. The fact that it was beautiful weather made this outdoor show transcendent.  This band had one of the great encores I have ever witnessed: as the State Fair fireworks decorated the sky, the band broke into an energetic cover of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).”  The crowd went nuts needless to say.

A bonus was Mavis Staples, a favorite of mine, as the warm-up act. Mavis, a mere 80 years young, rocked and testified.  It was one of the greatest warm-up performances that I have witnessed.  Later in the evening, Mavis joined Brandi for a cover of a Pop Staples’ song: “Friendship” – an appropriate choice as the connection between Brandi and Mavis was palpable.

I feel like I witnessed a niche Americana act turn into a rock star in real-time. This was a great show and Brandi has earned some new fans for life.

For a professional review see link.  Here is a playlist of the setlist (with the covers by the original artists):

Thom Yorke – Anima

I have been a Radiohead fan since The Bends was released in 1995. I have enjoyed Thom Yorke’s work outside of Radiohead, but somehow this album, Anima, resonates with me more than the rest of his solo and side gigs. I don’t know if I am in a more receptive and evolved state, or if Yorke made Anima more accessible. My gut is a little of both. Perhaps, seeing Yorke live this past winter put me in a more receptive state of mind.

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First, let me compliment Yorke and his label (XL Recordings) for the excellent rendering of the physical release. There are several versions and I picked up the vinyl on orange wax. It is a high-quality quiet pressing and the artwork is striking.

Yorke developed Anima with longtime Radiohead producer and collaborator Nigel Godrich via studio work and live shows. It was accompanied by a 15-minute short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson released on Netflix.  The film complements the album and the album complements the film.

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Anima lands squarely in the electronic soundscapes that solo-Yorke has worked in since his debut solo album The Eraser in 2006. It alternates between infectious dance numbers and dirges (sometimes in the same song). Ultimately, this is dream music. Not only dreamy sounding, but I assume we are getting a peek at Yorke’s unconscious mind on this album.

The music is both spare and lush at the same time. Yorke and Godrich have done a fantastic job on the production. As electronic as it is, it feels live and organic. It does not sound overly fussed over (but I assume it was – nothing that sounds this good is spontaneous). There is a lot of open space in the production that lets the music breath, yet it’s also deeply layered. Yorke’s vocals are front and center and the beats support the song – augmenting without distracting (despite their perfection). It is an artistic achievement to pull all of this off without it sounding like a mess.

Lyrically, Yorke is his usual “Debbie Downer,” but the music is so gorgeously performed that it’s more joyful than depressing. It is pure magic that Yorke and Godrich make their dystopian art beautiful. If you are a fan of the more electronic side of Radiohead, you will love this album.

Kamasi Washington and Next Step- First Avenue 8/11/19

I am a big fan of Kamasi Washington. I got turned on to Kamasi when a music buddy suggested I listen to this new jazz cat on the scene in the spring of 2015. I listened to The Epic and I was instantly hooked.

What grabbed me was the Coltrane style shredding in an acid jazz setting with elaborate arrangements (small combo, big band, orchestra, choir, vocalists, etc.). Kamasi is standing on the shoulders of his jazz predecessors, but he interjects his own personality into the jazz tradition. Ultimately, there’s a playfulness and a joy to Kamasi’s art.

Besides his music, which I love, what I appreciate about Kamasi is that he is bringing young people to jazz. Not watered down lite-jazz or some kind of fusion with contemporary pop music, but with straight-ahead jazz. He successfully communicates to a millennial audience raised on alternative rock and hip hop in the ancient language of jazz. Not with standards, but with stunning originals; it is absolutely fascinating. I have a theory on why millennials ears are open to Kamasi’s jazz: hip hop. Hip hop stars like Kendrick Lamar (whose albums Kamasi has played on) and A Tribe Called Quest have slipped in enough jazz in their beats to create fertile ears. Hip hop is hope for jazz.

Some jazz snobs are dismissive of Kamasi for reasons I don’t understand. What I do understand is that Kamasi is playing challenging music in the jazz tradition and is capable of filling a rock club on a Sunday night with millennials.

This is the fourth time I have seen Kamasi live. Each time he has been more commanding on stage. He and his band (Next Step) play in an aggressive and loud style, appropriate for the rock venues they are playing in. Kamasi is currently touring with a nine-piece band (two saxes, trombone, two drummers, two keyboard players, vocalist, and bass).

The First Ave crowd was very into the show. I asked a few neighbors around me if this was their first Kamasi show and the answer was yes. I was witnessing a bunch of indie rockers and hip hop heads having their first jazz woody. I couldn’t help but recall seeing Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Pat Metheny, and Woody Shaw when I was about twenty and falling in love with jazz music. It was a beautiful thing to witness.

Kamasi does not patronize his audience, but he is not aloof either – he is a rock star. He knows how to shred, but he also knows how to entertain.

Kamasi is currently on tour supporting Herbie Hancock. Kamasi is the kind of passionate musician that detours several hundred miles out of his way on his night off with Herbie to headline a rock club. Given the Hancock tour, Kamasi was in a position to fortify his band with the best of the West Coast Get Down collective. A special treat was keyboardist BIGYUKI who I was unfamiliar with. He brought some new colors to the Kamasi’s Next Step Band.

Kamasi played a nice cross-section of tunes from his three albums. Highlights were “Change of the Guard,” “Truth” and “Fists of Fury.” Each band member got a nice solo throughout the night. A special treat was Miles Mosley taking the lead on one of his songs: “Abraham.”

Kamasi has got to put out a live album. What he does live is rawer than what he does in the studio – they truly “tear the roof off the sucker.” If you get a chance to see Kamasi live don’t miss it.

Jessy Wilson – Phase

I discovered Jessy Wilson by way of Gary Clark Jr. Jessy was the warm-up act for the Clark show I was going to see. In the olden days, you were introduced to a warm-up act at the venue. But in the age of streaming, it is easy and no investment to sample the act in advance.

I gave Jessy’s new album Phase a listen and I was immediately hooked. This seemed like the perfect set up act for Gary Clark Jr. The music was soulful with a touch of the blues. A little retro, but it had a modern sound too. There was a familiar sound to the production, but I couldn’t place it. I googled it and it turns out Patrick Carney of the Black Keys produced Phase. Now when I listened to Phase I hear the Black Keys fronted by a soulful female. A really cool amalgamation.

Speaking of Keys, it turns out Jessy got her big break in the business several years ago singing backup vocals for Alicia Keys. You can hear a bit of Alicia Keys in Jessy’s vocals, but without the slickness (which is a good thing).

I got to the Clark show a bit late, but just in time to catch the last half of Jessy’s set. She was sensational. She and her band sounded great. Visually she was arresting:

And she has the entertainment gene. She did exactly what a warm-up act is supposed to do: she earned some new fans. Despite only hearing half a short set, I am on the Jessy Wilson bandwagon.

If you are a fan of the many retro-soul bands on the scene but are seeking a more original and modern take, check out Jessy Wilson. If you are a fan of the Black Keys, you will enjoy this soulful and feminine twist on their sound.

If you need categories, I will say this is a combination of soul music and psychedelic rock. If you don’t need categories, file this under good music. In addition to being an engaging performer, Jessy is a songwriter. She is the whole package.  I hope to see Jessy headling a show soon.

Here is a little more background per V Magazine:

Despite this being her first solo album, the Nashville-based artist already has an impressive career behind her. After graduating from LaGuardia High School (yes, that one), Wilson began singing backup for Alicia Keys as well as writing songs with John Legend. She’s also worked with artists Kanye West, Meek Mill and will.i.am. Even without singing any notable songs herself, her talent for songwriting has earned her two Grammy nominations.

After the Clark show, I headed over to the merch tent and there was Jessy selling merch and signing LPs (it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll).  I couldn’t resist and picked up Phase.  I have been spinning it for the last few days –  it’s a great album and will be on my end of the year list.  If you want a quick sample, give “Love & Sophistication” a listen. My favorite song is “Cool One” – but there is not a stiff on the LP – this is an impressive debut.