MUSIC REVIEWS: Blitzen Trapper, Woods, Ginuwine, Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics, Dion Roy
It often feels like the members of Blitzen Trapper might have met in line at a Grateful Dead concert where Neil Young opened, all having been moved by the experience but not quite able to pick between the two iconic acts or even combine them and resign to a fate of doing both, and doing them very well.
Black River Killer essentially lets you attend this concert with the boys from beginning to end: from the Neil Young vocal-stylings meets an almost Johnny Cash’esque murder ballad title track to the closing Dead-worthy jamboree “Big Black Bird.” These two songs serve as the definite high points of the seven-track EP, but manage to sound so much like two completely different bands that it deems them almost incomparable. “Big Black Bird” serves as the song that displays them as the feel-good jam band with slide-guitars everyone that knows them from the song “Wild Mountain Nation” assumes they are right down to the similar opening chords. And that’s not a bad thing. The tracks are by no means identical, but that song was good enough to listen to a whole album worth of near reproductions. And then Black River Killer seems to represent just one of a growing number of masks Blitzen Trapper can successfully put on and sing and dance around in, with other tracks on the EP sounding more like a mid-career soothing Wilco song (“Silver Moon”) to loosely chilling Simon and Garfunkel cooing (“Shoulder Full Of You”).
2008’s Furr was easily Blitzen Trapper’s most musically consistent album, a result some viewed was much needed for a band who can often feel like a track-by-track identity crisis. While Black River Killer certainly doesn’t further this, the EP actually serves as a pretty worthwhile outlet to view the upside of such a crisis.
I’ve been listening to this Brooklyn foursome’s latest album, Songs of Shame, pretty steadily for the past couple of weeks now. It grabbed me right away and has yet to fully relent.
This being their fourth LP, it is also their first to have garnered them a decent measure of exposure beyond the lo-fi, DIY Brooklyn scene. Immediately it’s not only accessible, it’s extremely likeable. The opener, “To Clean,” is one of the best rustic songs I’ve heard in quite some time; with its bouncy rhythm and some spastic shredding it gallops along with a buoyant pace and charming tone. Next is “To Hold,” which starts with Singaporean-style percussion a la Tom Waits’s “Rain Dogs,” but steadies into a floating ballad on the qualities of restraint. Followed by the acoustic, simultaneously melancholic and airy lament on regret, “The Number.” I was alternating between these three tracks for the first week and a half before I even gave the rest of the album its due.
Jeremy Earl sings in a falsetto that adds ethereality to the tone of what are, at their base, fundamentally simple songs about longing and life lessons. The album seems to revolve around feelings of isolation and self-imposed detachment, yet it’s tempered with hopes of redemption and ease from the existential dread, which creates the contrast that gives it a real listenable quality. There are a couple of instrumentals that don’t really do it for me, but these small shortfalls don’t take away from the excellence of the album. I keep using the term jangle-pop because I can’t think of another to describe the lo-fi sound that prevails in the current “indie” scene, so I’m going to have to use it again to describe the overall tone of the record. But, it’s more than that. Check it out for yourself. Thumbs up.
Singer Ginuwine has long been a hypersexual heartthrob. His latest album after four years, A Man’s Thoughts, is still super sexy but radiates an older and wiser side of Ginuwine who has been at the forefront of the suave bedroom playboy-side of R&B since his 1996 album, The Bachelor. One difference in this album is that it is sonically more expansive. “Orchestra” is inundated with cloud high keyboards and an overpowering strut of bass. An airy electric guitar riff and club beats nicely blanket the adoration of Ginuwine’s sweet vocal prowess. A delightful bounce of percussion and sensual crooning take on the appearance of detailing a sunny romantic afternoon. Layered nicely, the track is barely ambient techno but all sides are stunningly gorgeous. It is quite clear Ginuwine reassures older does not mean a lack of heightened sensuality. With the help of old friends Timbaland and Missy Elliot on “Get Involved,” the craftiness of this tune creates a delirious dance floor romp. The track delivers a punch only a historical trinity such as these three renowned artists could collectively release. Rapper Bun B’s syrupy delivery on “Trouble” adds to a charming and catchy warning about a woman and her hypnotic appeal. The delightful pop infused sway is electrifying. Brandy makes an endearing appearance on “Bridge To Love” sounding quite strong, much like her earlier hit singles along with an earthshaking beat. Ginuwine is no stranger to balancing body rocking gems and sex music, the added bonus to A Man’s Thoughts is still a more diversified, musically rich sound.
I first became acquainted with the Ethio Jazz sound of Mulatu Astatke in 2005, while listening to the groovy sound track of then newly released film Broken Flowers. Since that time, the Ethiopian born, British and American trained composer/musician’s albums have become much sought after gems of late 60s and early 70s Ethio Jazz; a genre he created upon returning to his native Ethiopia.
With this latest collaboration, the now very accomplished master joins a London-based musician’s collective, the Heliocentrics, in creating the aptly named Inspiration Information Volume 3. The sheer variety of instrumentation on the album boggles the mind, as the fusing of Astatke’s funky Ethio Jazz and the funk rock of the Heliocentrics produces a fluid form of psychedelic jazz that can’t help but cause one to bob their head.
Straight away, the album dives right in with perhaps the grooviest track; “Masenqo.” Soft piano leading into electric twangs and whines under breathy African language vocals and a jangly beat suddenly explodes into traditional jazz piano, bass, and drums that are a deadly groove. From there, the album had me firmly in it’s clutches as I vibed on the multitude of flutes, horns, traditional African instruments, strings, and electronic flourishes accompanying the usual jazz components. The beat doesn’t usually let up, with a driving groove that allows the other musicians to flutter about the pulsing rhythm and create a layered cloud of vibrant energy. There are a few slower tracks as well, but they never lose that invaluable sound of authentic Ethio Jazz.
Though the album is a mix of updated songs Astatke has composed over his career as well as new offerings, the feeling of experimentation is a thread that runs throughout the entire track list. Check out Addis Black Widow to get what could be this collaboration’s largest and most successful departure from the Ethio Jazz sound.
All in all, Inspiration Information Volume 3 is an amazing album, a must have for anyone who considers themselves a fan of funky jazz, afro-beat, and/or Astatke’s earlier work in the Ethio Jazz genre.
Dion Roy’s new album Gallery is an acoustic rock album full of endearing lyrics that resemble a series of checks and balances for the mind and heart. Born in the South African country of Namibia, later to live in New Jersey, then New York, Roy’s music is inundated with wispy, glowing pop pieces that fold out like a Polaroid photo album. Each song strikes a new emotion that links to an event anyone can relate to. The sentiment behind each song rises much above the music. The lyrics tumble out over a thriving foundation of broad alternative rock guitar with drums and bass that routinely fall in place as adequately as they should. What makes Gallery work is that Roy’s poetic nature and soft nuance yield a nice storytelling pulse against soothing slides of guitar chords and shuffling drums. Roy’s voice remains captivating and calm, pliable and at times, as alluring as nighttime. “You Can’t Take” is a bitter ode to wicked one-sided relationships. More intense and dramatic is “Blind World,” a dark funneling reconstruction about a sure way to quench enemy fire on all sides. The wavy assembly of “Reconsider” is elegantly beautiful and way more blues rock. The music is light yet haunting while Roy warns against mediocrity in love and life. The pumping acoustics of Gallery are charming, even more intriguing are the lyrics.