Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Kravitz: Consistent Quality Wins Again on New LP

I'll be honest, the acts associated with the root of Lenny Kravitz's sound, barring Sly & Family Stone, Prince, and The Rolling Stones, have never really been my thing. However, you don't have to be a fan of Led Zeppelin to appreciate Kravitz's unique musical synthesis of white rock and traditional black soul.

On It Is Time For a Love Revolution, Kravitz keeps quality and consistency in abundance. These traits have aided and abetted Kravitz in internalizing the previously mentioned influences, which many critics accused him of recycling shamelessly in the past. Thematically, this record differs little from the other seven LPs that preceded it. Kravitz easily could have come of age in the late 1960's, the breadth of the 1970's, or the early 1980's. His ability to sound like he stepped off of a time machine is what makes his music endearing in this age of musical cynicism. Kravitz always pours emotional depth into his music through his self-contained the production, arranging, writing, and playing. On this record Kravitz does what he does best, rock out, bare his soul (musically speaking), and make music that just feels so damn good.

The opening rush of "Love Revolution" sports Kravitz's handsome voice, popping with energy over the guitar crunching and drum stabs. The sexy braggadocio of "Bring It On" walks on your ear drums like its a stage. Kravitz's voice is able to bend and break upon the appropriate moment, never sounding phoned in, always just right.

The tongue-in-cheek wit of "Love, Love, Love" is a favorite here. With words like: "Your ways are never static! You're always keeping it erratic! I want you to know I'm emphatic, about your love that's enigmatic!" Women (and men!) are bound to swoon, especially when he follows it with the steamy stickiness of "Will You Marry Me?" This number shows that the fluid masculinity of Kravitz's sex appeal is not only stylish, it has substance to keep you coming back for more.

It isn't all rock star swagger and knee-knocking crooning, on the now Kravitz classic "I'll Be Waiting" he weaves his typical portrait of love prevailing in the face of a heart betrayed. An ode to his father "A Long and Sad Goodbye" joins the song dedicated to his mother, "Thinking of You," from the 5 LP (1998) as bittersweet dedications to his parents.

It Is Time For a Love Revolution leaves the listener with a sense of fullness and satisfaction. It isn't groundbreaking, but it is original in the sense that it is now Kravitz's sound. This sound finally bridges the true connection between the black soul and rock 'n' roll, and only Kravitz could do it on a balanced level. Four stars out of five.-QH

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Brand New Heavies b/w Siedah Garrett and Nicole Russo!

The Brand New Heavies. Andrew "Love" Levy works the bass. Jan Kincaid owns the drums, with occasional lead vocals. Simon Bartholomew is the guitar machismo. These three together provide a solid wall of jazzy, hip-hop dipped, trippy, smoothed out soul. The cherry on top is the female lead that makes their music really sparkle. Enter three distinct women: N'Dea Davenport, Siedah Garrett, and Nicole Russo.  Davenport is the vocalist who has remained in orbit around the Heavies longest but that doesn't make her cool approach my favorite. Rather it's Garrett (bewitching) and Russo (slick, if raunchy) that have two of the five Heavies LPs I've purchased burning up my boombox and iPod.

Shelter (1997)

Coming off of the acclaim of the Brother Sister LP (1994),and the last (at that time) to feature Davenport, the Heavies were certainly under pressure to deliver the goods. Enter Siedah Garrett, her resume reads as a songwriter, session vocalist, and singer which enabled her to fit into the bottomless funk pit the Heavies were known for.

Her voice filled the music with enthusiasm, injecting life experience into the affirming, complex cuts "Sometimes" and "Stay Gone."
On the glittery "You Are the Universe" and refreshing "Feels Like Right," she puts on her inner romantic. Outside of Garrett's vocal work, the songwriting and composing from the Heavies core of Levy/Kincaid/Bartholomew abound. The title track is a backbone banger of perseverance and pride, the vocals from Kincaid are detached but powerful.

Music Video for "You Are the Universe"

All About the Funk (2004)
Sadly, Garrett only remained for the one record and the males of the Heavies again were left to find another femme fatale to channel their U.K. flavored, U.S. inspired funk. Enter Nicole Russo, who one All Music Guide critic inaccurately described as Fergie-like, when in truth she has more in common with a Joss Stone or Nikka Costa.

On this album, the Heavies don their slickest sound, Russo's bouncy sex appeal (vocally) was the raw contrast. On the delightfully sassy and booty wriggling, "Boogie" Russo is a focused assailant to a double-crossing player. She manages to get reggae and emotionally pleading on the oft-covered song "Many Rivers to Cross" before slipping back into her strut shoes for the closing stomper "How We Do It."

From the Heavies core, we get some interesting contemporary and retro blending sonically. The hip-hop element is prominent here, not as heavy (no pun intended) as the Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1 LP (1992), but playfully kicked up a notch or two in the sampling and mixing elements. There is also a hilarious skit that closes "How We Do This," where Russo gives birth to a CD, and Levy comments: "I've never,ever seen a baby that color before!"

Music Video for "Boogie"

Overall, these records are really are just astonishing. I've been listening to them non-stop since I purchased each one. While I love the Davenport LPs Brother Sister (1994) and Get Used to It (2006), the latter contains one of my favorites Heavies jams "Love Is," I just think that Garrett and Russo deliver more interesting vocals to the Heavies sound.-QH

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Flame to Fire: Donna Summer's Return

Spending majority of the 1990's and 2000's, rightfully so, coasting on previous hits Donna Summer is (finally!) returning with a new record on May 20th via the Burgundy imprint (who hosts Chaka Khan on its roster). The album is called Crayons.

This will be Summer's first album of new material since 1991's Mistaken Identity and her fifteenth album overall. The lead single "I'm A Fire" is already setting folks into a frenzy within the clubs. The EP is currently available through the iTunes music store. My thoughts on the new single? Summer has had a decent run of "new recordings" over the years: "Melody of Love" (1994), "I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro) (1999), and "I've Got Your Love" (2005).  "I'm a Fire" in its original version is similar to the recent electronic-jazz fusion work that Jody Watley has been known for on her last two albums. The sound is worn by Summer's colorful voice nicely, the "Solitaire Club Mix" is also well done. It drops a wicked keyboard riff that is so house, so black and vogue, you can't help but to take it down to the floor.

Summer described the title of the record by saying, "My dream is that when people hear the music it will remind them of their youth, their childhood and the joy and wonderment they felt exploring their first pack of crayons." On board to produce the record are Danielle Brisebois, Greg Kurstin, JR Rotem, Lester Mendez and Evan Bogart. The two that really got me going are Rotem and Mendez. Rotem produced Jennifer Lopez's last underrated gem Brave (2007) and Mendez worked on Jewel's 0304 (2003). Both producers craft excellent pop music that is creative and interesting to the ear, something Summer has always been about.  In the midst of the Madonna's current musical blunder
(I say that with all the love and adoration for her), it's great to see the true "Queen of Pop Music Reinvention" making an overdue return.-QH

[Editor's Note: Visit this tribute page for the up-to-the minute news and information: . You'll also find the link to her official page there, which is still under construction for the new project.-QH]

Friday, March 14, 2008

Beating The Post-Velvet Rope Syndrome

I haven't written much about Janet Jackson's recent opus Discipline because I've already finished the print critique of the LP for my weekly gig at the Dayton City Paper. There is an issue I do want to address here, something that some Janet Jackson fans may or may not be able to relate to. I call it "The Post-Velvet Rope Syndrome.”

This "syndrome” deals with fans that haven't been able to let go of the creative plateau Jackson reached on her sixth album The Velvet Rope (1997). Each record that has come in its wake (four to date) has been met with scrutiny. Par the course, if you create a work of art with that kind of impact, those in favor of it want more of the same. However, if you can't appreciate the uniqueness of what comes later, then you aren't really respecting the artistic journey of said artist. I want to draw spotlight on the four LPs that followed The Velvet Rope: All For You (2001), Damita Jo (2004), 20 Y.O. (2006), and Discipline (2008) and why they've earned their own places in Jackson’s discography.

The All For You record was the soft serve response to the abrasiveness of The Velvet Rope.
Still carnally charged (proven to be a recurring theme by this point), it also had Jackson in her most pop vein ever. Fans of "Escapade," "When I Think of You," or "Runaway" were assuredly pleased. Cuts like the bouncy "Doesn't Really Matter," or the plush breeziness of the title track sat along well with the previously mentioned songs.

 All For You also housed to several other great jams: "Someone to Call My Lover," "Son of A Gun" (the album version with Carly Simon, not the dreaded single version with Missy Elliott), and the sobering "Truth." Structure wise, All For You was weak. The middle sagged with the weight of too many middling ballads, barring the splendor of "China Love." The closer "Better Days" felt like a true release after all of the preening All For You did; connection and vulnerability the mission of “Better Days.”

Damita Jo’s sonics wielded an adventurous edge rarely seen during any veteran stride of a recording act. An integration of new sounds and producers into the Jam/Lewis/Jackson trio was bountiful. From the spunky title track, to the rude snap of "Strawberry Bounce," Jackson returned to her urban roots after the pop of All For You.

Damita Jo contained a decent exhibit of Jackson's vocal work in "Island Life" and "I Want You." While “Island Life” rolled in a rainbow groove, “I Want You” was a wispy throwback. Further exploring led to Jackson’s forays into European urban dance with “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” and the sensual "SloLove." This theme wormed its way back into Jackson’s recent platter Discipline on the current single, "Rock With U."

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Jackson’s third album Control (1986), 20 Y.O. was Jackson’s most unapologetic set of R&B to date. The heady perfection of "So Excited," via sampled goodness from Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," delivered a cut worthy of rivaling "Nasty."

The sampled brilliance didn’t stop there as Brenda Russell's "If Only for One Night" got tapped for "Do It 2 Me,” a tight and funky piece. The sunny strut of "Enjoy,” to the tart pluckiness of "Call On Me" a flirty duet with Nelly, gave 20 Y.O. an almost perfect flow. Only the odd slice of groove in the form of "Daybreak" splintered the proceedings.

Discipline was Jackson’s first separation from Jam and Lewis since her second album
Dream Street (1984). Jackson showed that she had soaked up the Minneapolis funk-pop fusion into her core and that allowed for her to channel it through various producers. In this instance, majority of Discipline’s set was handled by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. The kaleidoscopic carnival ride of "Rollercoaster" is Discipline’s finest moment. There are others that shine brightly too: the cola-cool of "Luv," the Prince inspired "So Much Betta" and “Never Letchu Go" are also tasty. Discipline stumbled only on two songs: "The Greatest X" and "The 1" with Missy Elliot. Both felt perfunctory and didn't yield the magic that the best moments of Discipline did.-QH

Thursday, March 13, 2008

10 Years On: What the Spice Girls Mean to Me

Of all the artists that I have been a fan of, none have had the same effect on me as the Spice Girls have. Emma Bunton, Melanie Brown, Melanie Chisholm, Geri Halliwell, and Victoria Beckham have been my music heroines since I was 13.

They carried me through those awkward formative teen years, and kept me balanced in my young adulthood. Musically, they've nourished my passion in pop (the genre itself) and opened a door to the European and British singers that now line my CD shelves. Besides their colorful exterior, a mixture of sex appeal and fun, the Girls have simply concocted good pop music for over a decade. Their 10 year marker was two years prior in 2006, but today marks the day I bought my first record ever, the Spiceworld (1997) LP at the tender age of 13. I've been a fan since. That fall evening in 1997 when "Spice Up Your Life" danced across the airwaves and I hadn't (still haven't) heard anything like it. The brilliant energy and call-to-arms perfection of unity through diversity. The splashy vocal work from the Girls, the witty, tongue-in-cheek lyrics. What an anthem. "Flamenco! Lambada! But hip-hop is harder! We moonwalk the foxtrot! Then polka the salsa! Shake, shake, shake! HAKA! " I was forever captivated, going from casual radio listener to intrigued Spice Girls fan.

Unlike a lot of my other favorite artists, the Girls were the first musical influence that came wholly from my own interest. That sprung from their music abilities, they had the inescapable hooks and strong verses, the vocal blend. Themes of positive self-image and being an individual resonated with me.

Even when they retreated back to the more successful grounds of England during the "Solo Years," I grew with them. Geri's flirtation with Euro-pop confections such as "Calling" or "Desire" were aural treats. How about when Emma Bunton threw herself into vintage 1960's pop on her last two LPs, Free Me (2004) and Life In Mono (2006)?  Melanie C would get the critical accolades as she started her own record imprint Red Girl Records to release her third and fourth records independently. Even Victoria and Melanie B, whose offerings tended to be mixed, had fortune with certain albums or singles. How could these women not be regarded as musical entities, when they built a decade long career out of it?

With the successful reformation of all five last June and the Return of the Spice Girls Tour which just winded down last month (I saw them in N.Y.C. on 2/6/08), the women who took that stage did it with something special. It was prowess, an attitude, they made history. It's difficult for me to write about the Girls because they're tied to me in a very personal way. I just wanted to take today into observance because if it wasn't for them, I probably wouldn't be doing this at all. To me, the Girls represent hard work and strength in the face of adversity. Thanks for 10 years of music Girls, here is for 10 more.-QH

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Losing the Groove, Madonna Stumbles

As it is being widely reported, Madonna wants to get her American groove back. Alright, that it is perfectly cool. Madonna has been refining her Euro-pop electro element for several albums, a return to something more organic could prove fruitful. Right? Wrong. As a longtime Madonna fan, I can't say how underwhelmed I've been about the news surrounding her upcoming Hard Candy LP, her last for Warner Bros.

The collaborators that had been announced included Felix Da Housecat, Swizz Beats, Pharrell, Justin Timberlake, and Timbaland. The latter three give me pause. I say this because I feel that it reeks of calculation, which saying that about Madonna may not surpise some. Madonna has always walked a line of artistry and commercial accessibility, choosing producers that are "bubbling under" or ones at the top of their creative, critical, and commercial peaks.

Looking back, Madonna has done this before. Instead of plowing headlong into the diluted house revolution of the early 1990's after "Vogue," LPs such as Erotica (1992) and Bedtime Stories (1994) found her adding a more urban element. Specifically, the Bedtime Stories LP possessed a soft, organic plushness owed to working with, at the time, the biggest names in urban music: Dave "Jam" Hall, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, and Dallas Austin.

These producers were crafting excellent, now classic urban jams, but managed to crossover without losing their footing in black music culture. They gave Madonna excellent material, which allowed her to be one-step ahead trend wise,  but step forward artistically. From the two songs I've heard from Hard Candy, "Candy Shop" and "4 Minutes," Madonna wants to sound like Fergie. The songs are clumsy, lack grace, style, and any type of element that would bring Madonna to mind.

What does all this mean? Why is this bothering me? Madonna entered her veteran stride with Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005), but she managed to keep a sound that was hers. Now, because that album and the one before it only cleared platinum units domestically, she has taken it personally. Madonna feels that appealing to the lowest common denominator will restore her commercial luster Stateside. These producers, Timbaland mostly, while commercially on it, haven't had it creatively in several years. Had Madonna worked with Pharrell or Timbaland in 2001-2002, when they both were at their creative peak, the results may'have been intriguing. Though, I will admit the Swizz Beats work might be kind of fun.

But what does Madonna have to prove really? Sales aside, Madonna has done so much already, and this new LP seems already like a wasted opportunity to try something different, if not cutting edge. Time will tell what this move will mean for Madonna and her fans.-QH