listen out for 2014...
Cheryl Barnes is a singer, who has sporadically released albums over the last 35 years or so, whilst running an acting career in parallel, which has made her, almost, slip under the radar as a soul songstress. In 1978, she was releasing Disco twelves, in the shape of ‘Save & Spend’ for the Millenium imprint. Two years later, she collaborated with Giorgio Moroder, on ‘Love & Passion’, for the ‘American Gigolo’ soundtrack, and some seven years later, she finally released her own, self titled, debut album for Optimisim Incorporated Records. That release featured the very soulful ‘Love Changed My Ways’, along with a very passable take on the Jim Webb evergreen ‘Everybody Gets To Go To The Moon’. On the acting front, Cheryl starred in Miloš Forman’s 1979 film adaptation of the musical ‘Hair’, acting as the mother of Hud’s little son. Early career performances came as a singer came whilst at school at Union College, New Jersey. Cheryl sang as lead singer, joining the rock band Eve's Garden. The band opened for several bands including, the Classics IV, the Vagrants, and Ten Wheel Drive. So, in 2014, Cheryl releases a follow up album to her 1987 album, this set entitled ‘Listen To This’, this time for the Barnes & Cabasso Music imprint. This new album has been distributed as a Jazz release, although, after taking the whole set onboard, I would also add the tags Soul and Fusion. Cheryl’s voice has not changed in the passing years. She sounds as if she walked out of the studio in 1987, and walked back into the studio a week later, to record this very nice album. There are 12 songs on offer here, most of which are easily 5 minutes plus in duration. You even get a festive track thrown in for good measure (file that away for 10 months time!). The album is very Jazz orientated in parts, and very Norman Connors/Gregory Porter-esque in other areas. Of those songs, I really liked ‘That Afternoon In Harlem’ and the albums jazzy title track. The two tracks that really got stuck in the grey matter here are the epic melodies ‘Come In From The Cold’ (a ten minute plus epic), and my album ‘cherry pick’, namely ‘What’s On Your Mind’, a track that would have sat very nicely on the soul stations back at the time of her debut set, however, in today’s market cream seems to descend, rather than rise to the top, defying the ‘quality gravity’ mark. All told, this elusive artist has created a very diverse set of songs, all of which are hugely likeable, and will probably not achieve a great deal in todays market. All I would say to Cheryl is, achieving that is almost a kite mark of quality in 2014!
One album, which is drifting around in the shallow waters of todays market, not being thrown a hook as, as with Cheryl’s album, releases such as this one are not considered with any credibility. Babyface is a proven songwriter, whilst Tony Braxton is a hugely gifted vocalist, however, if pinned to the wall by Robbie Vincent’s Mexican Bandits, most folks will only recall ‘Unbreak My Heart’ by this singer. In Toni’s defence, she was well and truly ‘bustled’ into a smooth jazz slot in the local store by blokes in suits (who know very little about music, but a lot about the dollar bill), completely ignoring her credentials as a top notch Soul singer. Babyface’s sound is not perceived as ‘hip’ these days as ballads are frowned at by the music executives, who, as the Grammy’s showcased, ‘don’t know their Bobbie Smith’s from their John Edwards’. So what is likely to happen with this new Babyface and Toni Braxton album? Not a lot, is the likeliest scenario, which would be a shame. Those of you who remember that great Vanessa Williams track ‘You Can’t Run’, will know what Babyface is capable of as a songsmith. This album is very much of that standard. Easy on the ear, sure...but also very much song-led. The dilemma is, if you are a radio jock in 2014, where would you fit an album like this into your schedule. Too ’smooth’ for a Northern jock, too new for some, and not dancey enough for those who like their Neo-Soul. What I would say about this album is, to my ears, this set would be a huge album, if it was, say, a new Sade album. In fact I would say that this is the best album that singer never released! Great tracks on this set? I asterisked 5 tracks as 4 stars and above in my listings here. ‘Roller Coaster’, ‘Sweat’, ‘I Hope That You’re O.K.’ and ‘Hurt You’, all sounded pretty fine here. My ‘track of the album’ has to be the very last track entitled ‘The D Word’ (‘D’ standing for Divorce, thus the albums title), which is a hugely haunting song. All told, Babyface albums can be a bit patchy at times, although, apart from a couple of, perhaps, over indulgent slowie’s, this is one of his best overall pieces of his fine curriculum vitae. Let’s hope the album isn’t allowed to drift into the midsts of a very turgid radio market out there.
Recently, I watched the Grammy’s tribute to the Beatles, which celebrated 50 years since the Fab Four’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Watching the surviving Beatles was very interesting, as, that morning, I received this fine box set of 4CD’s which cherry picks some of the finest music of another singer, who is also celebrating their 50th anniversary. Macca and Ringo are well into their 70th year, whilst the late Otis Redding was only to see three of those 50 years before he relocated from this world to a better place. As to whose music showcased a superior longevity, well, you pays your money...There certainly is no doubt that ‘Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay’ sits alongside any of the Beatles songs, in the Musical Hall of Fame, very comfortably. I have often argued the case that Black Music is seen as something of an ideas repository, so control of that library is very important to those who ‘borrow’ from it’s huge cultural database, which the Beatles certainly did, and to their credit, admit as much. The crime is that 190 gram vinyl box sets of original Beatles albums, are lovingly repressed and sold for, what amounts to a sizeable downpayment on a property, whilst, I still scour the shelves for likewise on the Otis Redding front. The Beatles output was terrific, however, neither John, Paul, George or Ringo, could never send a chill down the spine the same way that many an Otis Redding tune could...and still can. The Beatles penned standards. Otis did likewise, but threw in the ‘feeling’ ingredient for good measure. Any new retrospective release by the King Of Soul is always something to be celebrated. ‘The King of Soul’ coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the late genius’s debut album, namely 1964’s ‘Pain in My Heart’. This 4 CD box set comprises of 92 tracks, which follows the career of Otis Redding since day one. Who would have imagined the roller-coaster ride to only have endured for a further 3 years? This great set revisits many studio and live recordings, including all the main singles and tracks from Otis Redding’s impressive CV. These albums include 1965’s ‘Otis Blue’, 1967’s Carla Thomas duets on ‘King and Queen’, and 1968’s posthumously-released ‘The Dock of the Bay’. The releases are delivered in Stereo, when possible, if not the others in glorious mono. Stax Records, actually started recording in stereo sometime in 1965. As a songwriter, included are his melodies ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’, ‘Ole Man Trouble’ and ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’. Also showcased are the great man’s live performances recorded in 1966 at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. and in 1967 during the Stax/Volt Revue tour of Europe. There were also the cover versions of Solomon Burke’s ‘Down in the Valley’ William Bell’s ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’, the Rolling Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and his brilliant take on Smokey Robinson’s ‘My Girl’. Along with his collaborations with Carla Thomas, this is a case of ‘must buy’, rather than ‘I will think about it’. Whether Otis Redding should be seen with the same stature of the Fab Four, well ‘Yes’ for all of the reasons I have outlined previously. I think, if you asked the Beatles individually, they would probably state that they would be honoured to be seen as being anything near the level of this genius. Unfortunately, the Sixties being the decade they were, we can never be objective. If the Fab Four were four young Black guys, would they have the acceptance on shows such as Ed Sullivan’s back in 1964? Ed would probably have wanted the group on his show, however, those in control of the media, well who knows? Not the lads from Liverpool’s fault. They were some of the most opened minded folks you could wish to meet, so, I only have one question....’When might we see these great Otis Redding compilations pressed onto pristine 190gm vinyl in 2014’? Just a thought. :)) In the meantime 10 out of 10 awarded to the Rhino Entertainment Group for the loving care shown in their collating of a musical work of art!
In any other week, I might well have bypassed this Loretta album, archiving it into the Amy Winehouse section of the new female retro singers on the block. Loretta’s album is called ‘Find A Way’ and is released on Vaziva Music out of France. She has a very nice website, where I went along to find out a little more about this singer. The page described as ‘Biography’ has a great deal of text contained on the page, none of the texts being contaminated with any of that irritating ‘relevant factual information’, so I am none the wiser regarding Loretta. The French Wikipedia page states that she used to go under the name of Laure Milan. Loretta writes most of her melodies, and this is her third album release. Musically, she has collaborated with several R&B artists including Craig David , Ne- Yo, Lauryn Hill, Lionel Richie and Raphael Saadiq. Last year she released the tracks ‘Miss You’ and ‘The Wonder That You Are’, all of which are featured on this new album. So, first question, is the album sung in English? Yes it is! As I worked my way through this very nice album, I cherry picked the title track and ‘Miracles’, as being good, well written songs, so why am I including this album in the review section here? Well, it’s because the album contains the track I like the most this year thus far. It is track 9, which is a duet with a singer called Gimenez E, entitled ‘So Alive’. If you like the Earth, Wind & Fire sound of ‘That’s The Way Of The World’, or you can remember the lovely Martha Redbone’s ‘Children Of Love’ from 2005, then you will certainly need to hear this track. it is simply a terrific way of sending six minutes listening to something really quite special. Perhaps one to pick up from iTunes? Do check the rest of the album when you are there, as this sister can write a tune or two.
As if like London buses, the quality new releases are coming through thick and fast right now! Ruben Studdard is now onto his 6th album. On each previous release, I have appreciated the music contained on each offering, however, in all honesty, I viewed Ruben as a singer who made good albums, but was holding on for an album which raised him above many of his contemporaries, and in 2014, some 11 years after his debut, by jove, I think he has just got there! You wouldn’t think that an album of cover versions, predominantly, would merit such enthusiasm, however, there is a trick to making a good covers album. That trick is simple. Do not copy the original, but ‘interpret’ the writings. Sure, our German born singer may have won the second season of American Idol, but I won’t hold that against the man! :)) Ruben has approached this album using all the directions. Respect for the original melody, he has allowed us to hear his voice, (and not him shouting at his audience), His choice is not too ‘obvious’, and that choice is nothing short of impeccable. Two tracks that are delivered with the word ‘winner’ impregnated throughout the tune, are his take on Paul McCartney’s ballad ‘My Love’ (a song covered by Margie Joseph back in the day), which has been given the full ‘Luther/Never Too Much’ treatment...and the track ‘Love, Love, Love’, a Donny Hathaway standard, which was recently covered by Frank McComb on his live set, but this time round, Ruben has delivered an uplifting almost Gospel styled stormer. Both of these will definitely make many a Soul fans top 20 at the end of 2014. If you get the deluxe version of this album, there is a very tastefully sung version of Stevie’s ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’. That is a song ruined by Frank Sinatra, who gave the track his own ‘swing’, whilst surgically removing the heart and soul out of the tracks carcass. Ruben has completed his own ‘Soul transplant’, and the song is back in safe hands again! There are great cover versions of Marvin’s ‘If This World Were Mine’ (which features the multi talented Lalah Hathaway), Gamble & Huff’s evergreen ‘Close The Door’, Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness Of You’, Boz Scaggs ‘Love, Look What You’ve Done To Me’, along with his own song ‘Meant To Be’ (and a very nice song that is as well!). This album is a masterclass in how to construct an album of cover songs. To take a song such as ‘My Love’ and inject the song with a whole new lease of life, is enough to make this album hugely recommendable, however, the sum of this albums parts is so much more than the one track here or there. Great stuff.
I look forward very much to Expansion Records annual Luxury Soul compilations. These releases are almost a musical stock take for the label, and even more so, the state of Soul music in each respective year of release. As with the 2013 set, this album is a) a must purchase, and b) bound to have an end of year favourite track or two. Proof of the pudding in our house here, were the inclusion in the site charts of the Personal Life and Valentine Brothers inclusions from last year. This year the standard is, if anything, higher! With many compilations, it would be the easy thing to cobble together about 30 or so songs, and just ‘sausage machine’ the music to the buyers. Ralph Tee has a vast knowledge of this music, and, knowing a small fraction of the information he knows, I completely understand the care that goes into his label’s releases. All told, there are 35 tracks, covering 3 CD’s of music, which features the likes of Gregory Porter, Tony Momrelle, Maysa, Bluey, The Jones Girls, Ed Motta, Keni Burke, Leon Ware....I think by now you will be getting a good idea as to the standard of the material on offer here. I am scanning the rear cover for you, so you can take a look at the full listings. Suffice to say, this is an essential purchase, and I would strongly recommend that, if you have missed any of the previous ‘Luxury Soul’ releases, you go check them out. All are essential and very reasonably priced, I must say. Thank you to the guys at Expansion for sending me this fine album.
Robin McKelle makes another appearance on this website in the space of a year! All told, however, this new album has been two years in the making, since her last album release. I was a bit of a slowcoach in picking up on that great set, by this native of Rochester in New York. I mentioned in my previous album review, that Robin was an ex teacher at the Berklee College Of Music. As far as her own back catalogue is concerned, I make this her 5th album release, a C.V. which dates back to 2006. For this new album she has chosen the city of the Stax and Hi record labels, for the musical tapestry which showcases a sound, harking back to the likes of Otis Redding and Al Green. She is certainly a versatile songstress and songwriter, penning eleven of the songs on this thirteen track fine set of melodies. As I mentioned, it has been 2 years since her ‘Soul Flower’ release, and this set of songs shows a growing maturity in all aspects of hers, and her bands sound. Right from the opening song, the listener is taken back to a time when Willie Mitchell ruled the roost in Memphis. ‘About To Be Your Baby’ is pure Al Green and Ann Peebles in sound. There is a fascinating version of the Animals evergreen ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, which has it’s melody ‘encouraged’, and not ‘belted’ out of the song. In parts, this album reminds me of the pre ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ Candi Staton, none more so on the bluesy ballad ‘Forgetting You’. Now, as you guys are aware by now, I do like to cherry pick a track or two, and two is the relevant figure here. I can’t separate the very soulful ‘Control Yourself’ from the Souther Soul sounding ‘Easier That Way’. I’ve always been a sucker for that particular genre. All told, this album is as good as ‘Soul Flower’...but nothing like ‘Soul Flower’, which had a more contemporary sound. One thing that is undeniable, is Robin and the Flytones are evolving musically, which is a bonus for all the rest of us! Lovely album. More power to her, and her band’s respective elbows!
Walter Christopher is and artist who has made an appearance in the charts at this site before, but never made a showing on these particular pages, As these are set aside of album releases, by and largely. The one off tracks have been sent to me by that nice Steve Ripley and his Soulfood folks, in the past. Now Walter has a completed set of songs, we can get to know this brother a little better, musically. To begin with, Walter must have been reading his dictionary over the last few months! :)) What does ‘Mellisonant’ actually mean? Well in the dictionary here I have ‘pleasing to the ear’, which does seem to make sense on listening to this fine set of songs. ‘Mellisonant’ is a better title to the dictionary definition, so is the music ‘pleasing to the ear’? Very much so. Walter funded this project himself, and this is actually his 5th album release. Working alongside Hubert Eaves IV, the first track that jumped out of player is the very ‘swing’ ‘Sexy Cool’. Quite a brave style to adopt in a market that doesn’t look kindly on those who ‘drift off-track’ musically. This is a very radio friendly tune, so radio jocks take note! ‘You’re Beautiful’ is a track that I was sent last year, and is a song that made me follow this guys career from a distance. If I mention Al B. Sure’s ‘Night & Day’, then you’ll get a good idea of the vibe going on in this song. Multilayered vocally, with several very pleasing key changes, drawing the listener in. The track that is my current favourite is ‘Splendor’, which is tenderly sung and is a five star rated song in this house. I recently watched Gregory Porter in television. In the interview he talked about the singers who looked for instant success on various talent shows, show of which the likes of Walter would never win, as he does not holler the music at the listener, but simply charms the audience. It is these guys that Gregory was concerned about. The great music that deserves a wider audience. Robin McKelle and Walter Christopher deserve that wider audience. Whether the suits out there will give these guys a break is doubtful. I am very grateful that music of this very high standard is being made in 2014. It is a shame it is likely to be immersed in musical broth of daytime radio sewage. Check these albums out. They are both very good indeed.
Anthony Crawford’s album ‘Urban Jazz, My Story’, is right up your street, if the sound of Robert Glasper is your thing. Anthony is a very proficient bass player, whose father Hubert Crawford played drums with the likes of James Brown and Mothers Finest. His uncle is the saxophonist Hank Crawford. In 2000, Anthony played in Los Angeles at the National Democratic Convention for Bill Clinton. He has also played with the group Shalamar, and collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Peabo Bryson, Jeff Lorber, Dave Weckl, Everette Harp, Frank McComb, Andrae Crouch and Eric Marienthal. ‘Urban Jazz’ is the man’s first solo offering, just out on Hydro 6 Records. The album sounds, strangely, almost Top 40, in places, and out and out fusion in others, such is the diversity of the melodies on offer. The instrumental ‘Jazz vs Hip Hop’ is VERY cool, almost in a ‘Miles Davis in 2014’ stylee. On the vocal Soul front, the track ‘Baby’ featuring the vocals of Valencia Robinson, is a real treat, as is the song ‘Only You’, which features the excellent Frank McComb (whom I met and shook hands with here in London only 5 days ago!). Frank really brings that ‘little extra’ to anything he performs on. This is a lovely song. ‘Never Go Away’ also appealed here, delivered in a very Stanley Clarke sounding format. If Stanley’s sound is your bag, you’ll take to this track. Quite the weirdest song, (and my current favourite melody on this fine set) is the partially jazz rapped ‘Dreams’ featuring a singer called Anon. A vocalist with no name? Who knows :)), however, this is a hugely haunting song, which remained in my grey matter well after the closing bars. Great material. Perhaps not for the purist Northern fan, but definitely targeted at the Robert Glasper style forward thinkers. Thought provoking and fascinating album. Recommended.
Debra Debs was born in the Cameroon. Now living in London, this new album called ‘Life Cycles’, is creating a great deal of interest in Soul and Jazz circles, and quite rightly so. The genre ’Neo Soul’, is a genre that, in recent years, has often given me the impression that an album might be a little ‘samey’ in sound (before taking it for a spin), as the template has been set by the likes of Jill Scott and Eryka Badu, whose debut releases were ground breaking. In the passing of the years, the genre has been somewhat unmovable. It has not evolved in it’s style, but has parked the bus, that bus had run out of gas, and has sorely needed a kick start in order to bring something new to the table. Debra Debs has given the genre a shot of ’Soul’ into it’s bloodstream, and the result is very pleasing indeed. Debra, herself, cites Jill Scott, Ella Fitzgerald, Lauryn Hill, Floetry, R.Kelly, and Mary J Blige as influences, however, they appear as influences, but, thankfully, not templates, which gives Debra her own hallmark. There are many tracks which appeal here, none more so than the opener ‘Caught Up’, although these old ears were also drawn towards the soulful ‘Clear My Name’, ‘Love Galore’ (my current favourite track), ‘Blew Your Mind’, ‘Blending Colours’, ‘Awake With You’ and ‘Daddy’ (not a cheesy song, but a great slice of Soul). All told, as you can see, there isn’t much not to like about this album. Well worth watching, is our ‘Debs’. Highly recommended. On DebraDebs Music in 2014.
We begin the New Year, as we do with most new years....exhausted and full of anticipation in regard the new music which is in the 2014 pipeline. These two albums begin 2014 very positively, starting the year with a clean slate, and in Frank McComb's case, a couple of gigs right here in London.
Frank McComb was often compared to Stevie Wonder, when he first came on the music scene. I completely understood the comparisons (all those key changes etc.), although, to me, his vocal inflections echoed those of a certain Donny Hathaway. Several years down the line, this latest album almost crept into the stores. Blink and you'll miss it! Live albums are often viewed as 'filler' albums in an artists C.V., however, as with the late Grover Washington Jnr's 'Live At The Bijou' set from 1977, they can become pivotal albums in an artists career. Another great live album was Donny's own 'Live' set from 1972, so it would be almost an inevitable release that Donny's own standard bearer sees fit to add to the musical timeline. Firstly, I must say that this album has been very beautifully recorded. The development of super sensitive sound equipment brings the studio and live sessions closer together. When I say that this album comprises of 8 tracks, the listener might perceive that they are about to be shortchanged regarding the albums duration. It is, actually around 44mins in duration, as many of the songs are seven minutes plus. Franks renditions are interpreted and embellished with the singers own phrasings, but never diverting too far from the style of the great originator. 7 of the tracks are Hathaway originals, however, 'We'll Carry Your Name On' is a Frank McComb original. Frank explains how the tune came together, with the singer, working in the Gamble & Huff studio's in 1992, laid down the first recording of this song. 'Carry Your Name' is pure Frank McComb in sound and writing, so diehard fans of the singer will need this album for this song alone. Frank additionally covers one of my favourite Hathaway evergreen's in the form of 'Flying Easy'. It's an odd song, which, when I first heard it, sounded as if Georgie Fame had had a hand in the arrangements. 'Love, Love, Love' is beautifully delivered, during the playing of which here, my daughter walked into the room, heard the song, and went online to buy 4 tickets for Franks gig at the Jazz Cafe here in London on the 18th of January, where he performs this album in a similar format. Hows that for a fully functional Internet! Looking forward to the show, but if you can't make it, do pick up this album. It is terrific.
Ursula Ricks is a new name to me. She records for the Severn Records imprint, and is, essentially, a Blues singer. Based in Baltimore, Ursula must have a penchant for the Soul Music format, as, on a couple of occasions here, she drifts into the genre, and the result is very pleasing. Produced by David Earl and Steve Gomes with horns by Chicago’s own Willie Henderson, Ursula has penned some fine songs within this set. There are 8 original tunes here, which sit very nicely alongside Ursula’s versions of the Bobby Rush song ‘Mary Jane’, and the wonderful Curtis Mayfield's tune ‘Just a Little Bit Of Love’. The Curtis song is certainly a highlight here, however, the song isn’t my personal favourite song on show here. Two of Ursula’s own songs are so full of the real deal, they really put a spring in my listening step! ‘Make Me Blue’ would sit very nicely on either of Bobby Womack’s Poet albums, however, ‘Sweet Tenderness’ is a killer Soul track, which will be in many a Soul fan’s best of charts of 2014. Very Patrick Moten in sound and essential in this house! This album is due any day now, so, as with Frank’s album, if you were bought vouchers over the holiday season, you could do yourself a favour and pick up these two gems. Recommended unreservedly.