MUSIC REVIEWS: Ben Neill, Lord Newborn & The Magic Skulls, Soulsavers, Jay Reatard, Tonic, Alan Wilkis
Ben Neill’s Night Science from beginning to end moves about in a subversive yet warm precision of instrumentation that never loses its glow. Pulsating cable thick bass lines drift throughout while beats hover above in untouchable spaces; other instruments are clearly lost in some sort of glorified existence. Wild unleashed horns and keys blast off somewhere in the atmosphere of an untapped galaxy. Subterranean flair and a rather laid back appeal make Night Science remarkable. Each track is seamlessly woven; there is an absence of song divide even though each hosts its own unique recess. Songs constantly gyrate between a myriad of styles, some move from a more jungle techno vibe to a seedy and mysterious jazz bar soundtrack. Ben Neill’s experimentalism thriving techno is only part of the story about this classically trained artist who is a native of North Carolina. According to Wired Magazine, Neill is a ‘music futurist.’ He has developed slices of music he wrote for Volkswagen ads into a full length album called Automotive. He is also the inventor of the mutantrumpet which combines a trombone and 3 trumpets. Later he worked with synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog and made the mutantrumpet more electronic and interactive, meaning that with a processing system the instrument has more versatility and a whole host of new sounds. Fully revolutionary, heady and atmospheric, Neill operates in high sonic art. The organic consistency of jazz and dub is addictive, impressive and bound to stir any lover of music.
Ubiquity Records has a long reputation of putting out a consistent blend of crushing groove-based records –– often with a laid-back, West Coast vibe –– that span a variety of genres such as jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop, electronic music and beyond. Their latest release is the self-titled album from Lord Newborn & The Magic Skulls, which features a combination of all of Ubiquity’s offerings and is ready to satisfy even the most cynical of music listeners.
The impressive collaboration of musical heavyweights Money Mark, Shawn Lee, and Tommy Guerrero has produced a soulful alchemy of mainly instrumental tunes. Best known for laying down keys on such seminal Beastie Boys’ albums as Ill Communication and the more recent Mix It Up, Money Mark is a prolific producer in his own right, putting out solo records for over a decade and composing music for film. Shawn Lee, the Ubiquity stalwart, has several releases on the record label as Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra –– equally funky, psychedelic instrumental music –– and has collaborated with the other mad musical scientist on the label, Clutchy Hopkins. Rounding out the trio is the Renaissance man Tommy Guerrero, who was a pro-skateboarder in California’s famed Bones Brigade before turning his talents to producing music.
With an amazingly diverse team of musical minds in the recording studio, the synthesis of styles and sounds could have resulted in an epic ego clash. Instead, there’s an equal give and take as each of the producer’s talents are able to shine on different tracks. “Astro Blue” highlights the tight, in-the-pocket grooves of Shawn Lee on drums and percussion while the prog-rock track “Crazy Apartment” features Shawn on every instrument under the sun, especially the heavy, fuzzed-out guitars. Meanwhile, Money Mark contributes funky keyboard and organ lines on practically every song, such as the feel-good riff on “Ringa Ding Ding Ding” that quickly makes it a perfect late-summer, chill-out track. Tommy Guerrero acts as the album’s backbone, playing on both bass and guitars throughout and layering the tracks with killer riffs. Overall, Lord Newborn expertly blends organic, lo-fi beats with a generous sprinkling of studio magic dust, giving these tunes both a classic and updated feeling.
What do you get when you take down-tempo electronica, mix it with bits of rock, gospel and soul, and add a roster of random musical talent? You get the uniquely-visioned duo and production/remix team, Soulsavers. Also known as The Soulsavers Soundsystem, Rich Machin and Ian Glover are the masterminds behind this creation, and with three albums under their belt, including this year’s Broken, it looks like these guys have no intention of stopping. Broken, like the albums before it, provides a darkly emotional yet uplifting listening experience. With two instrumental tracks and many collaborative efforts from outside artists, one could argue that this record is a bit country or a bit ambient, but truth is, it’s a little bit of everything.
One of the key elements of this album is the vocals of Mark Lanegan (aka front-man of Screaming Trees and on/off member of Queens of the Stone Age). On tracks “All the Way Down” and “Rolling Skies,” Lanegan proves he can sing against more than just heavy rock and grunge textures; his creepy whisper in the latter track, paired with the vocals of Red Ghost, make “Rolling Skies” the best track on this album hands down. Red Ghost (Rosa Agostino) also impressed me with her spellbinding and hypnotic vocals, which are present on three tracks, including the concluding track, “By my Side,” which is also another favorite. Other contributing artists include Jason Pierce (Spiritualized), Mike Patton (Faith No More), Richard Hawley (Longpigs), Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers), and Martyn Lenoble (Porno for Pyros).
In the press release for Broken, band member Machin stated (in regards to differences between this and other albums), “Touring has definitely brought the guitars to the front of Broken, and it’s got a more soulful twist too. And though it clearly has some very dark overtones, I don’t think it’s quite as dark as the last.” Indeed, Broken is proof that not all music has to be black and white; artists can and should use their creative freedom to explore other dimensions of sound and texture, which can ultimately make the difference between a good album and a work of art.
When you hear a name like Jay Reatard you can’t help but make assumptions. I thought the music on Watch Me Fall would be, well…dumb. Dumb is not necessarily bad but it’s not Jay Reatard either. These are all surprisingly sharp pop-punk songs. The most apparent influence is The Buzzcocks. Reatard even sports an inexplicable British accent (he’s from Tennessee). His songs have speed and attitude but they focus a lot more on hooks and catchiness. These two sides to his sound work well together but at times feel at odds with each other. They are tight but maybe a little too tight. The drums have machine-like precision which makes tight feel more like uptight (It may actually be a drum-machine, in which case I’ll feel stupid, but they sound like live drums to me). There are definitely plenty of hooks which are ear-catching while you listen to them but few of them are memorable after the album is over. I can’t complain too much about it. As an album, Watch Me Fall is good but it seems like it’d be a lot more fun to hear these songs played live. Pop music that isn’t wimpy is always alright in my book and this is undoubtedly a worthwhile listen. It just isn’t the kind of thing you go back to again and again but it makes for a fun moment.
Achieving a well-earned platinum album and two Grammy nominations, Tonic has definitely had their share of success. Vocalist Emerson Hart, guitarist Jeff Russo and bass player Dan Lavery (along with former members) first appeared on the music scene in 1996 with Lemon Parade, followed by Sugar in 1999 and Head on Straight in 2002. A Casual Affair: The Best of Tonic contains fifteen tracks derived from all three albums, and as far as greatest hits go, there’s not much missing here. The album opens up with hits “You Wanted More” and “If You Could Only See,” which both received tremendous airplay (the first track was featured on the American Pie soundtrack while the latter landed at #11 on Billboard’s Hot 100). The only downside to these hits was that they put other songs on the backburner, such as “Mean to Me” and “Casual Affair;” easily the most underrated songs in the band’s catalog. Tracks “Count on Me” and “Sugar” would probably come across boring and unoriginal if sung by any other late-90s rock band, while concluding track “Irish” sounds like a more melodic Dropkick Murphy song, but is nonetheless, still Tonic.
Three of the fifteen songs are bonus tracks, consisting of previously unreleased live versions of “Sugar” and “Irish,” as well as an acoustic version of “You Wanted More.” The only song missing that I personally enjoy is “Future Says Run,” but there’s still enough material here to make this album worth purchasing. Overall, Tonic was a vital element in rock music at a time when bubble-gum pop and hip-hop began taking over. A Casual Affair is the perfect collection of songs for any fan of the band or fan of 90s rock, while also being an appropriate prelude for their new, upcoming album.
Alan Wilkis mostly uses 808s and 80s styled synthesized harmonies to create delirious pop alongside rhythm and blues on his current release. Most of Pink and Purple will remind you of Madonna’s early hits, Chromeo, 70s soul and rock. With the help of Eric Biondo of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Antibalas, Ryan Ferreira of Bell, Grey McMurray of Matmos and Bell as well as others, Wilkis creates a unique thrust of ferociously rhythmic and energetic songs. “N.I.C.E.” screams influences from the Gap Band as the keys slide slippery and sticky like honey over a fortified wall of hard as diamond bass bumps. The layered vocals capture a funkified ode to a righteous soul thrust reminiscent of the best of 70s rhythm and blues. Between Wilkis’s high-pitched vocals and the female chorus backing a wealth of regal strutting drums, an extra smooth trumpet chorus justifies the track even further. The rest of Pink and Purple gives one a healthy warm appetite for more. It is gleefully an homage to vintage synth pop soul but it does so much more than reach backwards. Wilkis, as a multi-instrumentalist, intelligently molds past influences with a crisp creativity and a refreshing brightness for vinyl funk crate lovers as well as for those who just want to have fun.