J.S. ONDARA: 'Tales Of America' (Verve)

Sunday, 17 February 2019 09:46 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                 altA black folk troubadour from Nairobi influenced by Bob Dylan and singing about the American Dream is probably a music publicist's idea of heaven. That's because there's a great back story about desire, ambition, and raw talent triumphing over poverty and hardship. And to add to the drama and interest, there were sacrifices along the way - like leaving your homeland for another, not necessarily welcoming, country thousands of miles away and trying to survive as a stranger in a strange land.

If you're of a cynical disposition, then you're probably thinking, you couldn't make this stuff up. And you'd be right, of course, because life is truly stranger than fiction. Just ask J.S. Ondara. It's his life story that is outlined above and the great thing is that he has the talent to match it. Initially drawn to rock music in his native Kenya, he had a life-changing epiphany when he first heard a Bob Dylan record and it set him on the path to become a folk-oriented singer-songwriter. But he had to leave Africa and go to America - Minneapolis in Minnesota, to be precise - to realise his own personal dream. It was there he honed his craft, made an indie EP, which got played heavily on local radio, and eventually led him to grabbing the attention of Verve Records.    

The first thing that strikes you about Ondara is his voice. It has a deeply haunting quality and is suffused with a raw, naked, emotional  honesty. He sings straight from the soul with a plaintive voice that has subtle inflections drawn from his hero, Bob Dylan, with hints of Tracy Chapman and Odetta, and which can go into an eerie falsetto register for the more intense passages in his songs. His music, too, with its folky cadences, goes straight to the heart. Accompanying himself with strummed acoustic guitar, his songs - storytelling parables of life and love expressed through memorable melodies -  have a clarity and straightforward simplicity that is refreshing.

As for his debut album, 'Tales Of America' is a love letter of sorts to his adopted home. Some might find Ondara's infatuation with the land of Uncle Sam hard to swallow, especially given the country's long history of bigotry and racial troubles as well as the controversy its incumbent and divisive president has brought, but he looks at things with the lucidity - rather than naivety - of an outsider's eye.

The opener, 'American Dream,' despite its title, is a dark song  with a chugging, stripped-down backbeat that depicts a kind of nightmare scenario and shows that while Ondara has bought into the mythology of America he's not totally sold on it.  Other highlights include the anthemic love song 'Torch Song,'  which, with its choir-like background vocals, is particularly affecting. So too are the compellingly infectious 'Good Question,' 'Days Of Insanity' and 'Saying Goodbye,' the latter a plangent valediction whose lyrics are infused with a poetic quality. With its lone acapella vocal, 'Turkish Bandana' is different again and takes Ondara's minimalist aesthetic to the Nth degree, though it results in a totally mesmerising performance. The album's closing song, 'God Bless America,' isn't, as you might expect from its title, a rousing triumphal anthem but rather, it's a subdued song whose bittersweet refrain is "God bless America, the heartache of mine."

Though the influence of early Bob Dylan (circa the 60s) is almost palpable at times - especially on the strident 'Master O'Connor' - Ondara has managed to find his own unique voice. This is an impressive debut and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here - whether he'll deliver more of the same, or will explore other avenues.  Just for now, though, 26-year-old J.S. Ondara is living his own version of the American Dream. Let's hope he enjoys the ride.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 22 February 2019 09:36


DURAND JONES and the INDICATIONS; American Love Call (Dead Oceans)

Friday, 15 February 2019 19:43 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altDURAND JONES and the INDICATIONS are a mixed race soul fivesome who formed in 2012 when, as students at Indiana University in Bloomington, they discovered a mutual love for vintage, classic soul music. The quintet are vocalist Durand Jones, drummer/vocalist Aaron Frazer, guitarist Blake Rhein, bassist Kyle Houpt and keyboardist Steve Okonski. The band debuted in 2016 with an eponymous long player that won critical praise for its uncompromising take on the classic soul genre. It was rough and tough and believable ... like the great 60s and 70 soul that came out of Stax and other legendary southern studios.

Their 'American Love Call' is the follow up and the Indications have subtly change direction without sacrificing any soul credibility. They tell us that the new 12 tracker is "more Gamble and Huff than Sam and Dave" and, for sure, the music here is smoother and the production is bigger but it's lost none of the impact of its predecessor. 'American Love Call' is, by any yardstick, a remarkable modern soul album and commentators and soul tastemakers who've enjoyed previews are already singling out 'American Love Call' as an album of the year.

The album offers a mix of gritty, thrilling up-tempo material alongside some truly sweet and tender slow jams and that dichotomy is underlined by the fact that the band use two very distinct lead voices. A perfect soul pairing (Temptations anyone?) Durand Jones is a soul singer in the old school tradition and his big, rough voiced contributions add authenticity to the message in the music. Witness the wonderful opener, 'Morning In America'. This, I'm guessing, has been inspired by Curtis Mayfield's album 'There's No Place Like America Today''. "It's morning in America but I can't see the dawn" sings Jones and his delivery and a biting guitar lets you know he means it. The band's other lead voice is the drummer Aaron Frazer and his thrilling, trilling falsetto takes lead on most of the ballads – like the superb 'Court Of Love'... no, not the Unifics' classic, but every bit as harmonically perfect. Frazer's also out front on 'What I Know About You' – shades of the Delfonics, while on the Jones-led 'True Love' you might just think of the dear old Impressions. But what this group deliver aren't pastiches – rather they offer beautifully crafted and honestly delivered modern takes on the classic soul idiom.

Look, I won't beat about the bush any more. By now, you might have guessed I really love this album. I do. So I'll conclude by saying that yes, those commentators and soul tastemakers we referred to above are all right. 'American Love Call' will be the soul album of the year. I will be very surprised if I come across anything as convincing as this in the coming months. Yes 'American Love Call' is hugely, hugely recommended. It's released March 1st.

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Friday, 15 February 2019 19:57


SUGARAY RAYFORD; Somebody Save Me (Forty Below)

Wednesday, 13 February 2019 20:42 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altSugaray Rayford is a Texas-born, old school blues and soul man who impressed all proper soul fans with his 2017 long player 'The World That We Live In'. It was the kind of album that many feared was long gone; it was full of those qualities that drew veteran soul fans to the genre in the first place.... passion, commitment, fire, energy, sensitivity and yes raw soul. The music told us that Mr Rayford was probably reared in gospel and a quick check bore that out. For many years he was a cornerstone of the Texan Inspirational Youth Choir.

Now the good news, here comes the big man's (he's over 6ft 5 and weighs in at over 300 pounds) latest long player and 'Somebody Save Me' continues right where 'The World That We Live In' left off. So expect plenty (well 10 tracks worth) of old school soul. And like those old school soul classics this album is a well-balanced mix of straightforward love songs, social comment, ballads and up-tempo items.

The album was heralded at the end of 2018 with the single 'The Revelator' and that menacing, loping, sinister groove kicks off proceedings. There's more of the same implied menace on the album closer, 'Dark Night Of The Soul'. 'Time To Get Movin'' is jauntier but the message no less important. In the song (penned like the rest by label boss, Eric Corne) Sugaray explores the shameful problem of homelessness.

If its romance you want (and why not, it's Valentine's Day tomorrow) try the ballads 'My Cards Are On The Table' and 'Somebody Save Me'. Other album highlights include the Stax flavoured 'You And I' and the more up town, Northern-tinged 'Is It Just Me'.

So yes, plenty of variety across the set's ten tracks. What holds it all together is Sugaray's remarkable voice. Think back to, say, the Golden days of Chess and people like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters; then factor in the sound of classic soul men like Solomon Burke and add a sprinkle of the big voiced icons like Teddy P and you're getting near to the sound of Sugaray Rayford. Float that over an authentic soul backing in the manner of Daptone and Stax and you're getting near to the sound of 'Somebody Save Me'.

Sugaray Rayford; Somebody Save Me is released on March 1st. Find out more via our 2017 in depth interview with the man in our interview archive.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 13 February 2019 20:55


VARIOUS: Preston Glass Presents Love & Compassion, vol. 2 (SoulMusic/Platinum Garage)

Tuesday, 12 February 2019 20:56 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altJust 12 months ago veteran soul entrepreneur Preston Glass, in conjunction with soul's music's number one man about town, David Nathan, offered us his 'LOVE & COMPASSION' album – a various artists long player that Preston and David hoped would bring some love and compassion back into a world that really, really needs it right now! (Brexit anybody?).

A year later, the pair have just released a second volume and like the first, the album brings together some big names cheek by jowl with a selection of unknowns and soul wannabbes. I guess the biggest name in the line up here is Lamont Dozier. His offering is the aspirational 'Keep Climbing' and, sadly, I have to say it's a disappointment... an unfocused ramble and a far cry from his glory days. Other "big names" on the album number Chubby Tavares, Larry Graham and Evelyn Champagne King and sadly, they seem to be past their sell by date. Whether it's the songs or the performances, I'm not sure... nothing hits the spot.

Better are the offerings from the Stylistics and the pairing of Phi Perry and Melba Moore. Not sure which "Stylistics" these are ( there are a number of groups with the name on the circuit) but here their 'Change Is Good Sometime' harks back to their best days while 'Survival Kit' which pairs Phil Perry with Melba Moore is this album's highlight.

Sadly there's not too much else to recommend this album. Best of the rest is 'One Friend' from Angel Rose which aspires to a Burt Bacharach flavour without quite getting there. Much of this album seems to be little more than a vanity project, typified by 'Ask Somebody' from Pharaoh's Dream with assistance from the aforementioned David Nathan. The track only proves that Dave is a much better soul scribe than a soul singer!

(BB) 2/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 13 February 2019 15:53


VARIOUS: Lowrider Soul 1962 - 1970 (Kent)

Monday, 11 February 2019 16:11 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altIf there's one thing most soul fans love it's categorization! They love to put their music into neat pigeon-holes, genres, sub divisions, flavours, all kinds of everything! In something like 50 years of writing about soul I thought I'd come across every soul sub genre... how wrong I was! You see those awfully nice people at Ace/Kent have just come up with a new one (well, new to me!) ... "lowrider soul". It seems that lowrider soul began in Mexican, Central and South American migrant areas in and around East Los Angeles. In their clubs and bars, they preferred to play and listen to a very particular kind of soul – sweet and nostalgic love ballads (modern people, I think call 'em "slow jams"!). The "lowrider" tag come from the fact that many members of this slow soul loving community often cruised the streets (windows down, radio playing) in classic US autos – lowriders! However, the best way to define a music genre is with the music- not with words, and here Ace/Kent offer 24 wonderful examples of lowrider soul. We can be sure that these sonic definitions are bob on because the album has been compiled by a pair of genre experts.... UK DJ Sean Hamspey and California's Ruben Molina. Sean runs the Diggin' Deep soul label while Ruben, who operates in the lowrider heartland (South California) , has written the definitive book on the genre and fronts the Southern Soul Spinners DJ collective.

So, to the music –as the man said, it's what's in the grooves that counts. However, it's hard to know where to start because there's so much soul excellence here - so we'll cop out and begin with the biggest name amongst the 24... William Bell. His contribution is his 1965 Stax outing 'Crying All By Myself'. On it he's backed by the Astors (of 'Candy' fame) and while we're banging on about genres, I guess we could pigeon-hole this as "deep soul". There are several more "deep" items amongst the 24 (notably Reuben Bell's 'It's Not That Easy' and the Webs' 'It's So Hard To Break A Habit') but by and large the music here is mainly sweet and smooth – typified by Barbara Mason's classic 'Oh How It Hurts'. Other highlights include the Charmels' doo-wop flavoured 'I Wanna Chance', 'As I Sit Here' from an early incarnation of the Whispers and 'No Doubt About It' from the massively underrated Esquires.

To conclude, let's go back to genres, another man (same as the other one!) said there are only two kinds of music... good and bad. 'Lowrider Soul'? All good!

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Monday, 11 February 2019 16:19


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