2006 – May

OMAR – Sing If You Want It

Featuring new and established artists like Stevie Wonder, Angie Stone, Estelle, Rodney P, JC Bentley and Common and with work by his brother Skratch Professor, Sing (If You Want It) is definitely Omar’s funkiest album to date. It’s his sixth album in what has been an up and down career at the forefront of the British soul music. Counting stars like Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder and Angie Stone as fans, Omar’s five year hiatus has seen him start his own record label, build his own recording studio and recapture the essence of his love for the music. In his words: “I’m enjoying life so much right now, I play with great bands, there’s always new music to make, new styles to blend, new people to reach…”
The title track ‘Sing’ is Omar reminding us why he’s one of the best on the British soul music scene; catchy hook, the la la la’s that bridge the verse and chorus and the hints of R&B/Hip Hop ‘kicks-and-snares-but-essentially-steeped-in-soul’ beats. He flips the style a bit by fusing some latin jazz sax and conga’s on ‘Be A Man’ and he almost immediately takes it to the blaxploitation era with ‘Kiss it Right’ – you can almost see Richard Roundtree walking into a bar with this song in the background. He recalls musical favours done for Angie Stone as she performs on the mellow ballad ‘All For Me’ and the R&B infected ‘Stylin’ with what I think are more kicks and snares and bass thumps from Skratch Professor. My current joint favourite is ‘It’s So’ where he expertly grooves to the sound of the African drums and the funky horns blaring but he doesn’t lose the essence of what is Omar : the soul.
He employs his falsetto and the smooth rap flow of Common (Omar featured on one of the best songs off Common’s self definition album ‘Electric Circus’), Rodney P and Ashman on ‘Gimme Sum’ which is to be released as a single and features Estelle on the Anti-Gun track ‘Lay It Down’. He calls in the legendary Stevie Wonder on vocals and keyboards on ‘Feeling You’. Apart from the drawing power, what I think makes Omar a star in any books is his ability to feature so many other talented artists but you know you’re listening to an Omar song on every track.
I can’t decide if my favourite isn’t really ‘Ghana Emotion’, a brilliant way to finish the album because it’s got it all : the saxophone, the salsa flavoured influence, some congas topped off with lyrics (in Omar’s distinctive voice) that make you wish you were on a beach in sunny Ghana or just glad that summer is just round the corner; this is definitely a song that’s going to be on my ‘steady groove list’ for the summer.
And it’s a song that’s a sure sign that Omar, who’s been making music for the last 21 years and is fully in control of his music making direction presently, is loving what he’s doing. If you ever made out to There’s Nothing Like This back in the day, be sure to check this out.

ZERO 7 – The Garden

The first time I heard electro-soul outfit Zero 7, was on the original Six Feet Under soundtrack. The sultry song, “Distractions” got into my psyche and has remained there – coming out in whispers and hums that soothe and seduce. It’s that kind of song; they’re that kind of band. At the heart of Zero 7 are Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns. This techno-duo combines vintage funk with cutting edge instrumentation to create sexy, soulful grooves. Both men began their careers in the 1990s as sound engineers in London – remixing music for big-time Brits such as Pet Shop Boys and Robert Plant. Their former college-mate, Nigel Godrich – who was the producer for the band Radiohead – gave them a shot at re-vamping their sound. The results were stellar : a completely different remix of “Climbing Up the Walls” that appeared as a B-side of Radiohead’s single “Karma Police”.
Word was out and Zero went to hero in no time at all, riding along on the coat-tails of their French counterparts, Air. One good remix deserved another, beginning with Terry Callier’s “Love Theme from Spartacus” followed by ones for Sneaker Pimps, Lambchop and Lenny Kravitz. This was what one might consider the turning point in their career – going from behind the scenes and into the spotlight.
The duo’s 2001 debut album, Simple Things was both a blast from the past and a look into the future. Techie-synth sounds echoed over lush, sexy voices to recreate the romance of sixties French pop with post-millennium styling. Guest singers Sia Furler, Mozez and Sophie Barker along with dreamy instrumentals made this album the essential ‘chill pill’. Plus, the song “Distractions” put Zero 7 on the map when it became part of that Six Feet Under soundtrack.
Their second album, When It Falls was released in 2004. Among the returning artists were Sia Furler, Sophie Barker and Mozez – their breathy harmonies created cinematic soundscapes reminiscent of big screen music from eras past. With so many guest performers one can only wonder what a live performance would entail. Apparently, anywhere from 11 to 20 people can appear on the stage. A daunting task, indeed. Now on their third album, The Garden, Zero 7 seems to be moving into a progressively warmer area. Once pegged as electronica or acid-jazz, Zero 7 broadens its horizons with The Garden. Partly responsible for ‘sultrifying’ their sound is their newest vocalist – Scandinavian singer-songwriter and guitarist, Jose Gonzalez. With his own critically adorned album, Veneer in the UK top ten, he adds folk-inspired melodies to The Garden while harmonizing beautifully with Zero’s veteran, Sia Furler.
Jose will be joining the U.S. tour in September 2006 with yet another new guest soloist… none other than Henry Binns, himself. Who knew he could sing… and quite well, at that? But then again, there’s a lot we don’t know about Zero 7. Besides producing and programming every inch of their music, Binns and Hardaker cover a broad range instrumentally. All the keys, piano and synth parts are 100% theirs and some of the drums and percussion, as well. The creation is clearly more important than kudos, as they have never credited themselves on any of their albums. It appears they have won their creative license… and definitely the attention of the media, as well. Another song from Simple Things (“In the Waiting Line”) emerged on the highly successful “Garden State” soundtrack. Were they paying homage to the movie by naming their latest album, The Garden? Or is the name simply indicative of the term, “plant your seeds and watch them grow’? Zero 7 has done just that… and we the listeners, are lucky enough to hear them flourish.

THIEVERY CORPORATION – Versions

Michael Balzary, known to most people as Flea from the Chilli Peppers, was once quoted as saying that when he hears a good bass line it makes him want to f…ornicate. Thievery Corporation’s latest release “Versions” blends fat bass lines, melodic swells and yes, the desire to procreate for pure gratification when one hears the music. Driving south from LA to San Diego on the 5 South past San Clemente you pass the nuclear power station that is featured in many movies such as the Naked Gun. These two cone shaped nuclear reactors are to one a reminder of a pair of heavenly mammories. If Thievery Corporation was a pair of breasts they most certainly would be this pair – the most explosive set of boobs in the world.
Nearly 7 years after their first remix album “Abductions and Reconstructions” Thievery Corporation unleashes “Versions.” A new collaboration of rare and sublime remixes of songs by The Doors, Sarah McLachlan, Astrud Gilberto, Nouvelle Vague, Wax Poetic with Norah Jones, Anoushka Shankar, and Transglobal Underground, among many others.
“Versions” signals a return to form for the duo Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. Released in 2005, “Cosmic Game” as a whole did not embody the sound that clearly defined Corp’s prominence. There were however some notable moments from Perry Farrell and David Byrne on the record. “Versions,” the 18-track collection showcases Thievery Corporation’s versatility and studio production talent to transform music by a wide range of artists into sonic gems baring the distinct Thievery sound.
The opening track of “Versions” sets the tone with a haunting remix of Ustad Sultan Khan’s “Tarana” that glides along lazily through a haze of atmospherics. The sultry tones of Nouvelle Vague’s Camille leaves one dreaming of walking through an ominous forest at night yet calmed by the swells of a flute and the almost unearthly hum of a sitar.
“Who Needs Forever”, an ethereal classic by Astrud Gilberto (the original Girl From Ipanema) stands out as the strongest track on the album. This track sees you seated in a red leather booth wallowing in the blur of whiskey and then suddenly plucked out by a jazzy moving bass line that would bring death back to life – this coupled with the provocative tone of Astrud Gilberto’s voice is reminiscent of Thievery’s defining moment — The Mirror Conspiracy. Corp’s brand new track “Originality,” a sub-heavy collaboration between Thievery Corporation and Sister Nancy, is a reggaelicious smoke infused anthem for the ages. On Angels, Norah Jones, an unlikely collaborator, surprises. I personally find her bland and unoriginal, but here her voice glides through a rhythm-heavy underwater trance that brings back strong visions of Smoke City’s Underwater Love.
Garza and Hilton managed to amass some of today’s sweetest songbirds and successfully couple them with an adventurous and compelling mix of their seminal electronic beats and bass lines. Versions stands to see Thievery once again spread their exotic blend of music which like rain absorbs moisture and then spreads its goodness for all to thrive

RIP IT UP & START AGAIN – Various Artists

Following on from last year’s superb book by Simon Reynolds about the post-punk movement in Britain, this companion “soundtrack” covers the period after the Sex Pistols and before Acid House. If a week is a long time in politics, then 1978-1984 was a lifetime in popular music and having lived through it, I must say it dragged on a bit. Personally, The Smiths were like a breath of fresh air when they finally appeared and blew away Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and all the other posers. I didn’t really like “new wave” and the influence it’s currently having over the charts is equally grating for a grumpy old git like myself. Having said all that, the songs here have been lovingly cherry-picked from the vaults and none of them are obvious choices, which is what makes it so interesting. It’s a much deeper look into a period that at first glance might be considered shallow. The selections from The B-52s, Siouxsie, The Human League, Heaven 17 and The Associates are all completely off the wall … real “album tracks”, if you know what I mean. But I love this album for having the balls to do this and it reflects the v-sign attitude of the times it’s representing (and those are just the bands you might actually have heard of!)
This is definitely a specialist album and probably won’t sell that well, but for it’s historical interest alone it’s worth a listen if you’re into the edgier side of pop and indie.

BEAUTIFUL SOUTH – Superbi

Quirky and original to the last, Superbi was recorded all over the place : at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios, a farm in Bakewell and at producer Ian Stanley’s place in Eniskerry. It was then mixed by the legendary Bill Price (Sex Pistols, Clash, Gun ‘n’ Roses) … probably somewhere like a barn … on a hillside … in the rain.
Any Beautiful South fan will recognise acclaimed lyricist Paul Heaton’s hand in enigmatic song titles such as ‘The Rose of My Cologne, ‘The Cat Loves The Mouse’ and ‘Never Lost A Chicken To A Fox’.
The excellent lead single ‘Manchester’ started off as a poem, would you believe, as ‘a sodden tribute’ to the city says Heaton. It’s a welcome return to the studio for one of British pop’s most eccentric acts and you know the score : it’s Marmite … you either love ’em or you don’t.

SHACK – On The Corner Of Miles and Gil

A beautiful, epic concoction of folk and acoustic from Liverpool’s answer to Belle And Sebastian. Formed back in the Eighties, Shack have battled against the odds ever since, never enjoying chart success but have quietly gathered a legion of fans anyway. Now signed to Noel Gallagher’s boutique label, Sour Mash, they’ve found a home where they can release music they want without pressure to be fashionable or million sellers. On The Corner Of Miles And Gil carries on from where Here’s Tom With The Weather left off a couple of years ago big soothing melodies mixing both traditional and experimental songwriting. Stand-out tracks Tie Me Down and Finn, Sophie, Bobby and Lance show this off best, but overall it’s a fantastic release which could well bring Shack more exposure.

 Originally published in 2006

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