ERYKAH BADU: 'New Amerykah' (Label: Universal Motown)

Tuesday, 04 March 2008 12:19 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

ERYKAH BADU: 'New Amerykah'

Sadly, Erykah Badu's career has quite never lived up to the promise of her groundbreaking 1997 debut album, 'Baduism.' Steeped in a mixture of antique Billie Holiday records, new age mysticism and tripped-out hip-hop, 'Baduism' - along with D'Angelo's 'Brown Sugar' and Maxwell's 'Urban Hang Suite' from the same timeframe - helped set the whole neo-soul movement in motion. The album also spawned a host of Badu-inspired acolytes, including Philly soul-poet, Jill Scott, who has undoubtedly been the most successful of the idiosyncratic Texas singer's musical offspring. After 'Baduism' established her as one of the most original voices in black music, the singer born Erica Wright in 1971 released two further studio albums - 2000's 'Mama's Gun' and 2003's 'Worldwide Underground.' Although they went platinum and gold respectively in the States, they didn't - at least to my mind - have the appeal and attractiveness that characterised her debut. This new opus - only Badu's fifth long player - is a typically eclectic, and sometimes inscrutable, even self-indulgent, affair. It's intended, I think, as a satirical swipe at Uncle Sam and sub-titled 'Part One (4th World War)' - supposedly it's going to be followed up by a second instalment ('Part Two - Return Of The Ankh') later in the year. The brilliant, eye-catching cover is reminiscent of an old Funkadelic LP - and the CD booklet, too, is packed with bizarre illustrations and striking surrealist-style images accompanying Badu's often opaque lyrics. As for the music, well it's typical Erykah Badu - a sprawling, unpredictable melange of incantatory soul, jazz inflections, hip-hop attitude and R&B flavours. The funk-fuelled opening cut, 'Amerykahn Promise' is basically Badu and friends dropping a few spoken vocals over the 1977 Roy Ayers-produced RAMP track, 'American Promise.' By contrast, 'The Healer,' is an otherworldly piece with chanted vocals and minimal instrumentation (mostly percussion) that examines the intersection of hip-hop culture with the rest of the world. The hypnotic 'My People' is in a similar spaced-out vein. Much more direct is 'Soldier,' a haunting tune with a throbbing backbeat, and the lovely, jazz-infused 'Me,' with its lazy, summer-vibed groove. There's a harder, more aggressive edge to a brilliant track called 'The Cell,' where jagged pieces of fractured sci-fi funk beats underpin Badu singing about the destructiveness of drugs. Other highlights include 'Twinkle,' 'That Hump' - a sensuous mid-tempo ballad with horn seasoning - and 'Telephone.' There are a couple of bonus cuts - 'Real Thing' and the infectious single, 'Honey.' Like the last two Badu albums, 'New Amerykah' takes time to get into - but after a couple of listens, I guarantee you'll be hooked. And that's a promise.
(CW) 4/5


DIONNE WARWICK: 'Why We Sing' (Label: Rhino)

Sunday, 02 March 2008 04:30 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


Given the strength and indeed depth of her gospel music roots - her career started in church as a member of The Gospelaires group - it may be surprising to some that this world-renowned singer from East Orange, New Jersey, has only cut two out-and-out inspirational records in her long career. This new album is her second foray into church music - previously, she recorded a devotional LP entitled 'The Magic Of Believing' for Scepter in 1968, which was largely overlooked because it came at a time when Warwick was experiencing a fertile period in the pop sphere as the protégé of songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Forty years on and the 67-year-old chanteuse embraces her formative musical roots with a 12-track set helmed by her son, Damon Elliott (who's previously collaborated with the likes of Beyoncé, Pink, Destiny's Child and Eminem). The added presence of Warwick's other son, David Elliott, and her younger sister, Dee Dee, makes this a bona fide family affair. Material-wise, it's a mixture of the old and the new - of both traditional and contemporary gospel songs. It kicks off with the deeply patriotic 'Battle Hymn Of the Republic' and also includes heartfelt renditions of gospel staples like an organ-infused 'Jesus Loves Me,' 'The Lord Is My Shepherd,' and 'Rise, Shine And Give God The Glory.' A more contemporary stylistic patina is provided by Be Be Winans, who pens three of the album's twelve tunes and provides a typically soulful vocal cameo on the uplifting 'I'm Going Up.' The title track is a slow, Kirk Franklin-penned ballad, featuring the plaintive vocals of Warwick's junior sibling Dee Dee. More upbeat is the propulsive 'I Lift My Heart,' featuring thrilling antiphonal interplay between Warwick and her background vocalists on the chorus section. Though Warwick is unlikely to acquire new fans with this solid opus, it will certainly please the most loyal of her disciples.
(CW) 3/5


DIANNE REEVES: 'When You Know' (Label: Blue Note)

Saturday, 01 March 2008 05:04 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

DIANNE REEVES: 'When You Know'

Following a couple of small label LPs in the early '80s, Detroit-born Dianne Reeves signed to the legendary jazz label, Blue Note, in 1987, where she's remained ever since (save a one-off Grammy-winning soundtrack outing on Concord for the George Clooney-directed 2005 movie 'Good Night And Good Luck'). Four years after her last Blue Note album, 2004's 'Christmas Time Is Here,' this four-times-Grammy-winner returns with a soul-infused set produced by her cousin, keyboard maestro, George Duke. Listeners who liked Reeves' earlier forays into soul-jazz - exemplified by her Blue Note debut, 'Better Days,' and 1990's 'Never Too Far,' both helmed by Duke - will find much to savour on this, her twenty first long player. The set opens with a delightfully dreamy reading of The Temptations' ballad, 'Just My Imagination,' and also includes a pleasant reworking of Minnie Riperton's Stevie Wonder-scribed classic 'Lovin' You' - the original, complete with background bird noises, was too twee and saccharine for my taste but here, Reeves reduces the song's sugar content to a level where its sweetness is no longer cloying. Duke's sympathetic production really brings out the translucent beauty in Reeves' voice - especially on the gentle 'I'm In Love Again,' where she has soft, jazzy guitar accompaniment. Her rendition of 'Midnight Sun' is also memorable, with Duke and his cohorts - including Russell Malone on guitar - providing a silkily syncopated rhythmic undertow that has a smooth soul feel. The album's closer, 'Today Will Be A Good Day,' is a striking Reeves original that is remarkable because it's acutely different from the previous tracks on the album: it's a raw, aisle-shaking, gospel-blues with a jaunty '50s-style R&B beat. It ends the CD on a euphoric highpoint largely because the sobriety and sophistication of the other tracks is replaced by a playful earthiness that Reeves rarely reveals on record. A fine album from a phenomenal talent.
(CW) 4/5


LUTHER INGRAM: 'I Don't Want To Be Right: The Ko Ko Singles Volume 2' (Label: Kent)

Friday, 29 February 2008 12:36 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

LUTHER INGRAM: 'I Don't Want To Be Right: The Ko Ko Singles Volume 2'

It's quite feasible that Luther Ingram - the honey-voiced soul singer from Jackson, Tennessee, who died in March 2007 - could have been a household name in the mould of Al Green. He certainly had the vocal talent but it's probable that a somewhat dubious management and record deal prevented him from becoming a bigger star. Sure, Ingram did achieve a fair degree of commercial success - the memorable title track of this collection was a big crossover smash in 1972, topping the Stateside R&B charts and making number three in the pop lists - but he was certainly unable to capitalise and build on his early triumphs. Soul historians point the finger at entrepreneur/producer Johnny Baylor as the figure responsible for Ingram's chronic underachievement. Baylor owned the Stax-distributed Ko Ko label and it's widely believed that his ruthless, gangster-like management tactics - he reportedly once pulled a gun out to get money from Stax - stymied Ingram's career prospects. Even so, Baylor seemed deeply supportive of his chief acquisition and released a slew of 45s on him between 1967 and 1978. Compiled and annotated by former B&S scribe, Tony Rounce, this second and concluding volume of Ingram's Ko Ko 45s is a real humdinger. Of course, the collection's undoubted highpoint is the classic cheating ballad from 1972, '(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want To Be Right' - even today, 36 years on from the date of its original release, this tasty slice of Southern Soul still sounds superb. And although the likes of Millie Jackson, Isaac Hayes, Barbara Mason and even Tom Jones have recorded it, Luther Ingram's indelible, intensely-soulful reading of the song remains the definitive version. But this is patently no one track album - spanning the years 1971-1978, this 19-song compilation includes other gems like 'I'll Be Your Shelter (In Time Of Storm),' 'Let's Steal Away To The Hideaway,' 'I'm Gonna Be The Best Thing,' 'Do You Love Somebody' and the Marvin Gaye-style groover, 'Get To Me.' To my mind, and on this evidence, Ingram belongs in the pantheon of great '70s soul singers alongside Al Green, Barry White, Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass. Superb.
(CW) 4/5


GURU: The Best Of Guru's Jazzmatazz (Label: Virgin, EMI)

Friday, 29 February 2008 09:12 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

GURU: The Best Of Guru's Jazzmatazz

Within the whole hip-hop/rap firmament, it's my contention that Guru is the artist with whom most soul and jazz purists can identify with. The reason, I guess, is obvious. In 1993 he launched the first of his acclaimed 'Jazzmatazz' series and showed that hip-hop can work (and work damn well) within the frontiers of soul and jazz. Indeed earlier, with Gang Starr, the man had already shown huge respect for soul and jazz traditions, formats and conventions. It was clear that that was were his influences lay, and working with people like Roy Ayers, Carleen Anderson, N'Dea Davenport, Ronny Jordan and D.C. Lee it was no surprise that the first 'Jazzmatazz' LP was so widely acclaimed. And its little wonder that a goodly selection of cuts from that mould-breaking album are featured on this 'Best Of…' set. Two tracks in particular still standout - 'Down The Backstreets' and 'Loungin''. The first, of course, features Lonnie Liston Smith and the playing is as sublime and other-worldly as anything Smith's ever worked on. 'Loungin'' is a showcase for another jazz icon - Donald Byrd and again the cut rivals his very best. There are great selections from the other 'Jazzmatazz' LPs too - notably 'Respect The Architect' (with Branford Marsalis), 'Keep Your Worries' (vocals from Angie Stone) and 'Plenty' (featuring Erykah Badu). As a bonus there's new mixes of 'Loungin'' and 'Respect The Architect' and a rare cut that's only appeared on a soundtrack - it's 'Choices' featuring N'Dea Davenport and Bobbi Humphrey. The whole 'Jazzmatazz' canon is hip-hop as it should be and proves beyond doubt that the genre shares the same evolutionary pedigree and DNA as soul and jazz and if your musical conservatism previously forced you to deny this assertion, here's an opportunity to cast aside your blinkers and sample what you've been missing all this time.
(BB) 4 out of 5


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