2008 – March

ERYKAH BADU – New Amerykah Part One

It’s been five years since her last album, Worldwide Underground, but the Badu is back and I couldn’t be happier. I managed to see her at Brixton Academy shortly after its release and was totally blown away. Not only is Erykah blessed with one of the finest soul voices on the planet, with a quirky tone more suited to old style jazz (think Billie Holiday meets Lauryn Hill), but she is also awesome live. The band were tight, the repertoire faultless and her personal performance mesmerising, as she played the crowd, building steadily to a stunning solo encore – just her and a beatbox. The fact that a newly emerging Joss Stone was the support act just makes me sad now, seeing how diversely their careers have gone in the years since. Stone couldn’t hold a match – let alone a candle – to Badu.
So? The new album? It’s the opening salvo of a promised two-disc series (three if you count a live album Universal is promising in late 2008), and is as sonically ambitious as anything she’s done to date. Not unlike Mary J. Blige, Badu the vocalist exudes so much confidence and authority that she almost seems to overcook it sometimes, and both artists are guilty of trying too hard when if they just learned to relax a bit, they could take over the world.
Still, as is often the case, an artist who gives off the impression that they’re working with less than a full deck usually gives listeners more to chew. This is not wallpaper-soul – this is heavy and has more depth than a dozen modern RnB releases. With a slew of award-winning producers on board, the sound is never less than polished, yet throughout the entire album the thing that shines the most is Badu herself and that unique, alien voice … If Marvin Gaye was still around and still politically active rather than filling himself with food and drugs, he would have married Erykah Badu and maybe saved himself in the process … you’ll know why when you hear this album. She’s one in a million.

PORTISHEAD – Third

It’s a great month for comebacks and I feel like I’ve been waiting for my favourite bus to take me on my dream journey when lo and behold, two come along at once! Can you believe it’s been ten years in arriving though ? I could have walked to Bristol and back several times over by now …
Portishead, the original and best trip-hoppers, are back with a very strong album of weirdness and charm, blended in that other-worldly way that only they can pull off. With the exception of a few scattered contributions and a Beth Gibbons solo album, the group has been largely unspoken for in commercial recording since its 1997 self -titled release, and ever since mystique and anticipation have blossomed around the band’s absence. Now releasing an album of new material, matching its first two releases with an eleven song tracklist, Third may act as a question rather than an answer to the band’s layoff : are they still relevant in a changed musical landscape?
The new material has a stark feeling of separation when contrasted with of the sounds of both Dummy and Portishead. The thoughts of a musical departure are quite suitable, because to call the new album trip-hop would be a disgrace to both what the term came to represent and to the honest beauty of the variation in Portishead’s sound visibly apparent with Third.
The same haunting vocals are evident throughout, while there is a little more variation in the instruments used – there’s a ukelele in there on one track and less emphasis on the mellotron, for example. In the same way that Goldfrapp’s new album sees a more mature and rounded approach to their art, Third is like bumping into an old pal after a decade apart and noticing the differences in both yourself and them, but appreciating them even more …
When so much is expected of a band so talented, yet so remotely unusual, uncertainty is not merely granted but presumed yet Third as a solid body of work fulfils in its surprising assuredness, failing to even whisper suggestions that Portishead was ever irrelevant : it really
is ten years worth of anticipation fully realised and the audience’s patience fully rewarded.

B-52s – Funplex

The B-52’s, the pioneering dance-rock stars, are exploding on the scene once again with the release of ‘Funplex’, the band’s first studio album in 16 years.
An influential band who bridged the gap between punk and new wave with a sound that was uniquely their own, they have managed to create a new album as cutting edge, distinctive and danceable as their self-titled debut album and hit single ‘Rock Lobster’ were in 1979.
Working alongside producer Steve Osborne (New Order, Happy Mondays, Doves, KT Tunstall) Funplex was recorded in their native Athens, Georgia and with all 11 songs written by Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland and Cindy Wilson and it finds the band in energetic, optimistic territory, while staying true to the party-rock style that influenced such current bands as LCD Soundsystem, Interpol and Scissor Sisters. Guitarist Keith Strickland explains “It’s loud, sexy rock and roll for your pleasure zones, with the beat pumped up to hot pink!” This album will hopefully bring their music to a new generation of intergalactic fans because the gang have made a record that is incredibly fresh, dynamic and perhaps most importantly, quintessentially The B-52’s : instantly recognisable, instantly fun. Party on!

TIFT MERRIT – Another Country

Tift Merritt’s third album, ”Another Country,” makes it clear why she attracts such adoration from Americana fans: her sugar-cane voice seduces with a sweet tone and a delicate texture that melts into heated phrases and sparkles when sprinkled on upbeat fare. But it also shows growth: her writing especially carries more confidence, using fewer words and catchier arrangements to make her point faster and clearer than in the past. The romantic yearning in ”Another Country” may have been inspired by writing the album while living alone in Paris. She returned to America to switch record labels and hook up with George Drakoulias, who produced her Grammy-nominated album ”Tambourine.” ”Something to Me” – the album’s best cut – has a smart, sardonic quality reminiscent of Jackson Browne. The title song is a sparsely arranged piano tune that recalls ’70s singer-songwriters more than contemporary pop or alt-country. So does ”Morning Is My Destination,” which owns the soulful tenderness of Norah Jones. Though still inconsistent, Merritt moves from a promising performer to an artist with a surer sense of her voice and writing style on ”Another Country.” Maybe this North Carolina native had to leave the country to get in touch with her Southern soul?

JAMIE LIDELL – Jim

Jamie is Jim. Let’s clear that up straight away.
He’s also another artist I was lucky enough to catch live a couple of years ago, following the release of his second album, Multiply. That one really caught people off-guard in 2005, few expecting the restless sonic scientist to make an uplifting soul record, but he did and audiences and critics were captivated by the fusion of his influences with deeply felt song writing, meticulous production skills, and most of all, that awesome, amazing voice. According to the reviews, Jamie was at various times Little Richard, Jimi, Otis, Sly, Prince, Marvin, Stevie or some mashed-up combo of them all. Meanwhile, his live show has become an infamously exhilarating experience, as he performs on the edges of control and chaos, turning music inside out.
And now here he comes again. Jim is ten very different songs. Jim is energy, integrity, emotion. Jim is all about the hooks. Jim is getting the sounds absolutely right. Jim is keeping things fresh. Jim is the voice. Jim is Jamie and Jamie is Jim.
Recorded in Berlin, Los Angeles and Paris, Jim takes even further what was started with Multiply, finding the balance between the spontaneous creativity of his raw ideas and the careful craft and polish of a great record. The musical world of Jim is richer and more refined but it always comes back to the voice. As Jamie says, “The most important thing was the vocal, to capture the balance of me delivering the songs with full gusto, and at the same time retaining the grain and the grit.”
Jim will switch you on in the morning, move you on the dance-floor and take you down in the small hours. It’s a bold, promiscuously diverse album, mixing up gospel grooves, sweetly sung and fiercely passionate soul, delicately moving ballads, thumping early R & B, synthed-up disco, and even a touch of ‘hillbilly funk’. “I haven’t tried to hide the influences,” he says “This is the music I love.” But, listen closely and you can hear Jamie moving in new directions, creating a sound and style that is entirely his own.

ERIC SARDINAS – Eric Sardinas And Big Motor

Fans of slide guitarist Eric Sardinas will be happy to hear that he’s limbered up his trusty axe for a fourth album, Eric Sardinas And Big Motor. Last heard on 2003’s Black Pearls, Sardinas’ newest effort again showcases his signature brand of blues-tinged rock, and helps kick off his 2008 tour schedule. Sardinas comes by his affection for the blues honestly. He grew up in the deep south, and even as a very young child found himself drawn to delta blues and the music of Charley Patton, Elmore James, and Muddy Waters. That helped centre him as he reached adulthood and relocated to the LA area, where he went through a period of searching for his musical identity, for a while even earning a living playing acoustic guitar in the streets. In the early 1990’s he hooked up with bassist Paul Loranger and formed the Eric Sardinas Project (ESP), later adding drummer Scott Palacios. Over the next few years the group built its name by appearing anywhere and everywhere, eventually working into a regular spot as an opening act for Johnny Winter. It led to a recording contract and Sardinas’ successful debut album, Treat Me Right. He’s joined on his newest by bassist Levell Price and drummer Patrick Caccia, but Sardinas is clearly the star here. His blazing guitar and raw, gritty vocals dominate every track and will appeal to many listeners, although it might be a tough sell for some. But whatever your feelings about Sardinas himself – and the fusion of blues and rock in general – it’s impossible to resist the energy and fire shown here. It’s perfectly demonstrated by the first track on the album, “All I Need,” with its deceptively mild opening that leads into pure combustion. It’s one of his own compositions, which make up most of the album’s content, but the exceptions are notable so let’s talk about those first. Sardinas shows his brass cojones by taking on the King, giving us his version of Presley’s classic “Burnin’ Love,” and I have to admit that his ‘hunka’ isn’t half bad. Less successful is his attempt at Tony Joe White’s “As The Crow Flies,” which starts as a nice little guitar riff but eventually gives the feeling that the crow was losing his way and possibly dive-bombing the scarecrow. But there’s lots to like about this album, and some of the best tracks are the pieces written by Sardinas. In addition to the opener, my favourites included the retro rock feel of “It’s Nothin’ New,” and “Gone To Memphis,” along with the searing instrumentals in “Wonderin’ Blues.”
Originally published in 2008

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