Sunday, 26 April 2020

Pet Shop Boys ‎– Actually (1987)

Style: Synth-pop
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Parlophone, EMI

01.   One More Chance
02.   What Have I Done To Deserve This?
03.   Shopping
04.   Rent
05.   Hit Music
06.   It Couldn't Happen Here
07.   It's A Sin
08.   I Want To Wake Up
09.   Heart
10.   King's Cross

Vocals – Dusty Springfield
Written-By – Tennant-Lowe
Producer – Julian Mendelsohn, Pet Shop Boys
Fairlight Synthesizer, Keyboards – Adrien Cook, Andy Richards, Blue Weaver, Gary Maughan, J.J. Jeczalik

With their second album, Actually, the Pet Shop Boys perfected their melodic, detached dance-pop. Where most of Please was dominated by the beats, the rhythms on Actually are part of a series of intricate arrangements that create a glamorous but disposable backdrop for Neil Tennant's tales of isolation, boredom, money, and loneliness. Not only are the arrangements more accomplished, but the songs themselves are more striking, incorporating a strong sense of melody, as evidenced by "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," a duet with Dusty Springfield. Tennant's lyrics are clever and direct, chronicling the lives and times of urban, lonely, and bored yuppies of the late '80s. And the fact that dance-pop is considered a disposable medium by most mainstream critics and listeners only increases the reserved emotional undercurrent of Actually, as well as its irony.
Stephen Thomas Erlewin / AllMusic

Marlena Shaw ‎– The Spice Of Life (1969)

Style: Soul, Funk
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Verve Records, Cadet, MCA Records, Inc.

01.   Woman Of The Ghetto
02.   Call It Stormy Monday
03.   Where Can I Go
04.   I'm Satisfied
05.   I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free)
06.   Liberation Conversation
07.   California Soul
08.   Go Away Little Boy
09.   Looking Thru The Eyes Of Love
10.   Anyone Can Move A Mountain

Producer, Arranged By – Charles Stepney, Richard Evans

Verve/UMe reissued on vinyl the 1969 long-unavailable soul-jazz album by revered vocalist Marlena Shaw, The Spice of Life, ahead of its 50th anniversary in 2019. The album was produced by Richard Evans and Charles Stepney, the genius house producer-arrangers who worked for the Chess subsidiary Cadet Records and were responsible for some of the best productions of the ’60s and ’70s. 
The Spice of Life was Shaw’s second album on Cadet, following her 1967 LP Out of Different Bags. It was released in 1969 and established her as a fully-fledged artist, featuring a tapestry of varied styles, messages and moods, from the psych-blues of her version of Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas’ Civil Rights Movement anthem “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free)” to the more traditional sound of her take on Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s blues tune “Go Away Little Boy.” 
The most enduring hit of the album, and arguably the most famous song Shaw ever recorded, was her cover of “California Soul,” a song originally composed by Ashford & Simpson in 1967 and first released by The Fifth Dimension. Over the years, Shaw’s version has shown a long-lasting influence, sampled in electronic music and hip-hop by such artists as DJ Shadow and Gang Starr, and used in numerous commercials for such brands as KFC and Dodge Ram Trucks. In 2013, it also appeared in the video Grand Theft Auto V, played by the in-game radio station The Lowdown 91.1. 
Shortly after the success of her Cadet Records albums, Shaw made the decision to move to the more jazz-oriented Blue Note Records, believing it to be a better fit for her eclectic style. In later years, she also recorded for such labels as Verve, Columbia and Concord Jazz, among others, and continues to perform to this day, in 2018, at the age of 76.
Despite its innovations, exciting experimentations and the popularity of “California Soul,” The Spice of Life remained widely unavailable for many years, falling into obscurity for four decades.  However, the new Verve/UMe edition, pressed on 150-gram black vinyl with a tip-on jacket featuring a faithful reproduction of the original artwork, shows it still stands tall, packed as it is with memorable moments.
Mat Micucci / JAZZIZ

BadBadNotGood ‎– IV (2016)

Genre: Electronic, Jazz, Post-Bop
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Innovative Leisure Records, Beat Records

01.   And That, Too.
02.   Speaking Gently
03.   Time Moves Slow
04.   Confessions Pt. II
05.   Lavender
06.   Chompy's Paradise
07.   IV
08.   Hyssop Of Love
09.   Structure No. 3
10.   In Your Eyes
11.   Cashmere
12.   Up

Vocals – Sam Herring, Charlotte Day Wilson, Mick Jenkins
Percussion, Synthesizer – Kaytranada
Bass Guitar, Synthesizer – Chester Hansen
Drums, Vibraphone – Alex Sowinski
Piano Rhodes, Electric Piano – Matty Tavares
Guitar, Violin, Acoustic Guitar, Flute, Bass Clarinet, Saxophone – Leland Whitty

Ghostface Killah has a lot of different superpowers. He paints narratives as easily as his heroic counterpart Iron Man takes down bad guys. And like Tony Stark boasts a genius-level understanding of thermonuclear astrophysics, Ghost’s finely tuned ear for a sample is superhuman. 
The Wu legend was brought up in the ways of the old school. His voice carries as much character as a dusty old 45. So it makes sense that Ghost would be drawn to BadBadNotGood. The Toronto band has crafted an impressive catalog of throwback jazz and funk cuts filtered through a hip-hop prism. Last year’s Ghost/BBNG team-up record, Sour Soul, felt like the natural next step for a group who came up performing instrumental covers of Slum Village tracks and producing for Earl Sweatshirt. Though Ghost rarely spit as hard as he did a decade or two ago, he still sounded great sinking into BadBadNotGood’s thick, hazy orchestration. 
BadBadNotGood’s finest effort to date, IV, follows the filing system of previous records, but for the first time on their own album they add vocalists to their blissful cuts. Guest spots come from all over the stylistic map, including modernized jazz workouts, svelte funk songs, and shimmering hip-hop — all without that dreaded compilation disc feel. It’s all distinctly BBNG. 
“Time Moves Slow” features Future Islands’ jelly-hipped frontman Samuel Herring. It’s a classic R&B slow jam, a timeless groove with sophisticated grace. Anyone who has been on YouTube will know all about Herring’s killer dance moves and croaking voice, but his greatest gift might be his heartfelt delivery. “Running away is easy/ It’s the leaving that’s hard,” he sings, imbuing the line with a quaking insight. 
Mick Jenkins stars on “Hyssop of Love”, a trippy hip-hop track viewed through glittering, star-shaped sunglasses. The Chicago rapper advocates the natural high of love, not drugs, but sounds blunted out and paranoid — like he’s laid back in a vintage polyester armchair, pondering the “wolves in disguise” at his door. Better still is Toronto singer Charlotte Day Wilson’s turn on “In Your Eyes”. An alluring soul ballad, the track is a ticket to a smokey basement blues club where neat dress is essential but the Jack and Coke is cheap. 
For the most part, though, BadBadNotGood affirm their position as one of the finest young jazz acts in the world, mixing classical orchestration with their own take on the genre. “And That, Too” is laced with electronica. “Lavender” is propelled by a synthetic rubber band bass line. The mournful “Chompy’s Paradise” is colored with 40 shades of blue. 
The former trio have added saxophone player Leland Whitty as a full-time member after his satin-smooth perfomance on III’s “Confessions”, an album highpoint. “Confessions Pt II” adds bluster to the original’s silk. Whitty is joined by Arcade Fire collaborator Colin Stetson. The pair’s sax lines weave in and out, while Matthew Tavares’ organ gives the track a funky engine. The song is propulsive and assertive, the sound of a band four albums in and confidently wielding their own unique mythos. 
These are songs full of poise, jukebox jams cut by dapper musicians in an analogue studio mixed with contemporary jazz. IV sounds as timeless as the instrumentation itself. BadBadNotGood’s work with Ghostface Killah will have drawn in more listeners, but what they’ll find on IV is so much more than they might have expected.
Dean Van Nguyen / Consequence Of Sound

Little Annie ‎– Trace (2016)

Genre: Electronic, Jazz
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Tin Angel Records

01.   Cold World
02.   Dear John
03.   My Old Man Trouble
04.   Nought Marie
05.   India Song
06.   She Has A Way
07.   Bitching Song
08.   You Don't Know What Love Is
09.   Break It You Buy It
10.   You Better Run
11.   Midlife Lazarus
12.   Trace

Bass – Rob Clutton
Drums – Blake Howard
Electric Guitar – Justin Haynes
Organ – Justin Haynes
Piano – Ryan Driver
Vibraphone – Michael Davidson
Vocals – Little Annie
Producer, Mastered By – Jean Martin
Recorded By, Producer – Opal Onyx, Paul Wallfisch

Little Annie’s latest solo album is a bit of a freewheeling evolution upon her recent cabaret/torch song work with pianist Paul Wallfisch, though Wallfisch was notably still involved in the lead single "Dear John."  For the rest of the album, however, Annie alternately collaborated with Toronto multi-instrumentalist Ryan Driver and Brooklyn electronic trio Opal Onyx.  Naturally, the more rhythmic and spoken-word-themed electronic pieces are the more dramatic departures, recalling some of her ‘80s work as Annie Anxiety.  While the Driver pieces show a considerably more subtle change, that seems to be the more significant and (presumably) more lasting one, taking Annie’s "chanteuse" persona in a more lush, lively, and conventionally beautiful direction.  Also of note: the title piece is easily one of the finest pieces of Annie's career.

As an outside observer, the central problem with Little Annie's oeuvre to date has been one that most other artists would probably love to have: she has a magnetic presence and flair for style that seems quite difficult to fully capture on a recording.  Also, while her current role as smoky voiced chanteuse is ideal for showcasing her power as a performer, reverent renditions of subdued and smoldering jazz standards are not particularly conducive terrain for conveying the full "Little Annie" experience.  It is a classic "square peg, round hole" scenario.  With Trace, however, Annie has found a much better balance between cabaret stylist and her more idiosyncratic gifts.  Those two sides rarely coexist easily within the same song, but at least both sides are somewhat equally represented here–the Opal Onyx bits are especially effective at highlighting Annie’s eccentric edges.  Even if pieces like the brief acapella opener "Cold World" or the throbbing, sassy, and delightfully absurd "Bitching Song" are not particularly substantial, they provide a welcome injection of personality and serve as a very effective contrast to the album’s more straightforward and jazz-based fare.  One of the Driver pieces ("Midlife Lazarus") is even more radical, beautifully weaving Annie's spoken-word with doomy guitar sludge and a very unexpected choir.  It sounds like absolutely nothing else on the album, but works well as a self-contained entity.  Annie should strongly consider sending Sunn O))) her resumé. 
Impressively, the pieces written by Annie and Driver fit quite seamlessly with the album’s two standards ("India Song" and "You Don’t Know What Love Is").  I am not sure it is ever a good idea to go toe-to-toe with Billie Holiday or Nina Simone without at least radically overhauling an arrangement, but Annie definitely gets points for at least picking good songs to cover and she very much holds her own.   More importantly, Annie's own "You Better Run" sounds like something that Holiday or Simone themselves might have incorporated into their repertoires if the timing were different.  I am also quite fond of the sensuous Latin jazz of “Break It You Buy It,” as it takes Annie’s characteristic sultry melancholia in a sexier and livelier direction than usual.  The album’s highlights, however, are the very different “She Has a Way” and the closing title piece.  "She has a Way" is one of the Opal Onyx pieces and its industrial-tinged narrative sounds like the belated perfection of Annie’s previous Jackamo-era aesthetic.  A lot of Annie’s most compelling work occurs when she delves into her misfortune-strewn urban character studies, though they generally require a lightness of touch to avoid erring on the side of too maudlin.  "She Has A Way" does not have a light touch at all, but it perversely works anyway.  On the other hand, "Trace" is just a tender and gorgeously lush love song with perfectly understated accompaniment, an irresistible hook, and a truly impressive vocal performance from Annie.  It is unquestionably one of the most moving and beautiful pieces of Annie's long career, but it is equally noteworthy that just about every original song on Trace seems better than either of the two standards.  While Annie excels as an interpreter/stylist, she is still generally at her best when she is channeling her own words. 
If Trace can be said to have a flaw, it is only that it is a bit kaleidoscopic: it is readily apparent that Annie had multiple collaborators and shifted directions several times while the album was gradually taking shape.  In an uncharitable light, that could be seen as a lack of clear vision.  I think that that variety (whether intended or not) actually serves Annie quite well though, as a full album of torch songs or piano ballads can get quite numbing regardless of the artist’s abilities due to the inherently limited palette and unrelentingly noirish mood.  While Ryan Driver's guidance and arrangement talents definitely deserve a lot of credit for Trace's success (he apparently talked Annie into singing more and growling less), the biggest strength is the songs themselves.  Annie has always had a wonderfully soulful and throaty voice and charisma to burn, so it is always just a question of finding or writing strong enough material to bring that out.  Also, Trace excels in some less tangible ways as well, as it feels like a more fun and vibrant affair than some of her previous "jazz chanteuse" albums.  I have no idea if that is a result of the production, the performances, the arrangements or all three, but I definitely like it.  Whatever convoluted formula Annie has here, I sincerely hope she continues using it.  I suspect Soul Possession will probably forever reign as my favorite of Annie’s albums, but Trace is probably the high point of her creative rebirth as a cabaret diva.
Anthony D'Amico / brainwashed

John Lurie National Orchestra ‎– Men With Sticks / MTM VOL. 34 (1993)

Style: Contemporary Jazz
Format: CD
Label: Made To Measure, Crammed Discs, Columbia

1.   If I Sleep The Plane Will Crash
2.   Men With Sticks (Noble Version)
3.   Schnards Live Here

Recorded By – Tom Lazarus
Written By – Lurie, Martin, Weston
Mixed By – Joe Ferla
Music By – Martin, Weston, Lurie
Drums – Calvin Weston
Percussion – Billy Martin
Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Producer – John Lurie

This archival compilation is a much-needed addendum to John Lurie's recorded legacy. Since being struck with a chronic case of Lyme disease in 2000, the saxophonist and composer has focused more on painting than music. The John Lurie National Orchestra was an early-'90s trio with percussionists G. Calvin Weston and Billy Martin. This group recorded fairly little in the studio, issuing only one album, 1993's Men with Sticks. The title track from that recording is featured and showcases just how fluid and communicative they could be in virtually any circumstance. It's one of the true highlights here, with Lurie's hypnotic alto exploring the subtleties of a melodic idea atop a circular rhythm orgy by Weston and Martin. Four more studio recordings are cues from the soundtrack to Lurie's brilliant television show, Fishing with John. The group's clarity and humor are readily apparent in them, despite the fact they were improvised as serial music and interconnect seamlessly. The finest moments, however, are in the two longest pieces, both recorded live and both unreleased. "I Came to Visit Here for Awhile" was recorded in New York in 1991, and showcases a series of short melodic statements from Lurie, who begins to wind them out modally in all three registers on his horn. Rumbling tom-toms, kalimbas, hand drums, sticks on the drum kit frame, and other percussion move this tune from its seemingly defined space into an entirely different one without shifting gears all that much; it's almost snake charming music. The other unreleased gem is the long, labyrinthine exercise in rhythm with expansive Eastern modal harmonics and sprawling dynamics which is "The Invention of Animals"; it clocks in at just under 20 minutes. This is where the interplay of Lurie's trio locks in, extends, and expands the compositional frame into the unknown. Lurie allows the freer side of his jazz playing to come to the fore, playing around, in response to, and through, his percussion team's ever-widening, ever-explorative grooves, even as drums and percussion instruments get augmented by the player's chants and moans. The trio layers levels of intensity on top of one another, eventually exploding in a musical storm that while "outside," never leaves the listener behind. Given the quality of these performances -- not to mention the fine sound here -- one can only hope there are more recordings by this fine band in the can.
Thom Jurek / AllMusic