The Neville Brothers
The slinky grooves and rhythms that the Neville Brothers have been laying down for nearly 25 years have always taken their good old time getting to where they're going. A calming vibe inherent in the music makes their best work seem like little vacations wrapped in song. The paradox of this is that the Nevilles are also one of the most exhilarating and agile live bands of the last quarter-century.
Their most accomplished albums, in turn, have been those that have confronted these contradictions or have ignored them completely. Their 1984 live set Nevilleization is the best document of the quartet on stage, while 1987's Yellow Moon--a rumination on their New Orleans heritage, as well as a brief and intimate history of the African-American experience in the twentieth century--remains their most realized work. Most efforts since have either sagged beneath the weight of their idealism or drifted into sappy R&B as brother Aaron coos romantic over radio-lite beats.
On their new album, Valence Street, the Nevilles sound more assured than they have in years, pumping up both the volume and the heartbeat of the songs. It's their best record since 1990's Brother's Keeper and one that embraces the culture and legacy (personal and artistic) that have always been at the root of their finest work. It's at times funky, occasionally serene, and nearly always a glowing showcase for the brothers' individual skills.
As usual, it's Aaron who shines the brightest here. "A Little Piece of Heaven" and "Give Me a Reason" are covered in thick, rich tones (supplied by both his supple voice and the band's equally flexible instrumental backing), but the heart-clogging syrup isn't piled on too thick. Instead of drowning the arrangements beneath a torrent of adult-contemporary stiffness, the songs merely take a free-flowing approach, gliding gracefully over the tunes with a respectful polish.
Likewise, a playful cover of "If I Had a Hammer" manages to be buoyant without sacrificing its sociopolitical essence, and the sly "Mona Lisa" (a collaboration with Wyclef Jean that was originally on Jean's The Carnival) is a solid hip-hop bridge that doesn't sound at all labored or out of place. Still, Valence Street isn't without lulls. There's not much diversity among the songs, and things are still played a bit safer than they would have been, say, fifteen years ago. But the heart of the album--the Nevilles' family groove and the local ancestry they continue to celebrate--is resolutely centered and sounds, once again, like a soothing return to wherever home is.
Urge Overkill may have exited with the dragon, but Dovetail Joint sounds ready to step into its Chicago brethren's velvet smoking jackets. Tracks like "Beautiful" and "Here We Are" have the big '70s riffs, sing-along chorus, and disinfectant production values Urge used to build its toe-curling martinis. Nash and Kato, behold your sires.
Dovetail Joint doesn't live by vermouth alone. 001's eager-to-please songs sidle up to the pop-rock yearnings of bands like Everclear and Fastball. Radio programmers will delight at the start-soft, build-big constructions of "Beautiful," "Level on the Inside," and "So Graciously Said." Not coincidentally, each song is less than four minutes long.
Singer/guitarist Chuck Gladfelter and drummer Joe Dapier have been friends since they were twelve, and "Oh My God" suggests the two were knocking around Chicago in flannel five years ago. By the chorus, memories of the summer of Collective Soul are rushing back. One of 001's best songs is the least like the others; on "Except When You're Late," Gladfelter and the band seem inhabited by the great, late spirit of the English Beat.
Like other major-label debuts, 001 packs the hits at the top of the album before going off on a few tangents (some successful, others not) and closes with the requisite brooder (the six-and-a-half-minute "Lullaby"). Prediction: With a nudge from Sony, they're this year's Semisonic.
Just like flipping through a friend's old yearbook, the archival collection What? Stuff reveals unpolished primordial tracks from--and occasionally unflattering glimpses of--the instigators of the L.A. punk scene. It's a twisted amalgam of obscenely rare singles issued by the here-today, gone-today upstart punk label What Records between July 1977 and August 1978. The compilation showcases a graduating class of later new wave and alternative rock heroes in their first struggles with an electric guitar and/or safety pin. More than an archive of punk foundations, What? Stuff outlines an auspicious rock genealogy: Not only are these tracks the first recordings by such punk progenitors as the Germs, Dils, and Agent Orange, but even the lesser-known groups boast future members of the Go-Go's, Rank and File, X, and Wall of Voodoo.
Legendary punk casualty Darby Crash kicks things off as he disinterestedly mumbles, "Rip 'em down, hold them up/tell them that I'm your gun/pull my trigger, I am bigger than--" as his bandmates in the Germs stagger through their first performance of the infamous "Forming." The band later honed its skills to become a blitzkrieg outfit on its Joan Jett-produced debut album, GI, but here it's almost hard to recognize the melodic crunch guitarist Pat Smear later provided for the Foo Fighters amid the jagged din.
Photocopying the Clash's sound and style long before Rancid discovered hair dye, brothers Tony and Chip Kinman of the Dils (and later of the country-punk fringe Rank and File) show more refined chops on "I Hate the Rich" and "You're Not Blank." However, their skill as musicians didn't translate into originality on their first single, which blatantly snags riffs from the Clash's "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" and "White Riot." Nonetheless, their reckless abandon and (surprise!) Clash-style dual vocals make for rousing anthems.
The vitriolic rant of the Eyes' "Kill Your Parents" barely hints at the infectious pop later created by bassist and future Go-Go guitarist Charlotte Caffey, nor the poetic rockabilly whipped up by drummer D.J. Bonebrake in X. Likewise, the Skulls' "Victims" hardly sounds like the twanging tones of the guitarist and bassist's subsequent group, Wall of Voodoo. That's the fun of What? Stuff; it's raw and rudimentary, rude and rhapsodic.
Negro Necro Nekros
Not in the two decades since Afrika Bambaataa stapled together sonic blueprints as disparate as electronic Krautrock and funk has a rap artist so cleverly fused divergent musical genres into a cohesive whole. Combining the Velvet Underground's feedback frenzy, Public Enemy's apocalyptic intellect, Ravi Shankar's sitar drone, Ice T's sneering delivery, and De La Soul's inventive sampling, Dalek demonstrates a reinvestment in hip-hop's foundation as a cross-cultural collage of sounds. While much of the current crop of rap stars is contented to rewire tried-and-true pop hits or maintain a regimen limiting sampling sources to soul, funk, and other rappers, Dalek vehemently dislodges hip-hop from these insular tendencies.
On this five-song debut, MC Dalek along with DJ Octopus introduces an earnest mission to revitalize hip-hop as an underground phenomenon. The duo's modus operandi combines incendiary rap with trans-generic elements such as classical, Indian raga, post-punk, and urban noise. Blessed with an impressive musical literacy, Dalek pours the swirling fray of his sonic cauldron into opener "Swollen Tongue Blues." Overdriven drums and droning sound layers bustle over the top of a hushed loop of electric piano as Dalek announces, "Witness the birth of the first child." Soon, screeching electronics are smeared against an orchestral crescendo to accentuate Dalek's urgent alliteration. By the song's close, the MC strains for composure as an unnerving wail of staccato violins, effect-soaked guitar squeals, and synthesizer bleeps erupt underneath.
"Three Rocks Blessed" simmers in waves of tremolo guitars and droning sitars, which ultimately give way to the polyrhythmic frenzy of tabla hand-drums and hip-hop beats. Infusing the drone styles of Middle Eastern music to rock rhythms may be nothing new, considering the Beatles' 1966 album Revolver initiated the use of sitar and hand-drums in rock songs. However, Negro Necro Nekros never allows particular sonic textures to dominate to a point of gimmickry. Instead, a piano or guitar or classical music sample is often paired with twanging sitar tones to create what sounds like a unique new instrument.
The eleven-minute closer "Praise Be the Man" stitches together feedback, white noise, chimes, and distortion-ravaged drumbeats which ring in harmony with the looped vocal mantra of an Indian raga. Dalek's syncopated rap is nearly buried in the din. As the song builds in combination with the vocal rhythms, the twinkling fuzz-guitar layers popularized by shoegazers My Bloody Valentine saturate the mix. It all builds to a massive wave of soothing noise, while Dalek chants, "Praised be the illusion/praised be I."
Face in the Crowd
Rooting through boxes of old stuff in my basement, I recently came upon a 70-year-old copy of Time magazine, and what do you know: It looks and reads just like this week's edition once you get past the ads for Victrolas and Packards. The same sentiments would cover the release of Face in the Crowd by thirty-year rock legend Leon Russell.
Time seemingly has stood still for the writer of such classics as "Delta Lady," "This Masquerade," and "Song for You." He's still got that mountain man long-hair-and-bad-beard thing going; chronologically, he's caught up to his prematurely white hair. But it's the music that has really been frozen in time.
Russell has essentially been rewriting the same song templates since Nixon's first term, and it's no different this time out. The album stumbles out of the gate with macho blues regrettables "Love Is a Battlefield" and "Dr. Love" before hitting a stride with "Tightrope"-styled cuts like "Down in the Flood" and "So Hard to Say Goodbye." There's also a second draft of "Delta Lady" ("Betty Ann"), as well as an updated companion to "Lady Blue" ("This Heart of Mine"). The Father Time look-alike may not have kept up with the times, but Russell's Cajun-blues-rock-and-roll gumbo still warms the soul.