A Collection of New Vinyl Releases - April, 2009

Janelle Monae • Metropolis: The Chase Suite • Bad Boy Records

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Janelle Monae doesn't lack for ambition. That much is for certain after just a cursory listen to her debut E.P. "Metropolis: The Chase Suite." Monae has some heavy hitters in her corner, and they bring a lot to the production side of the recording. It's Monae's voice, however, that carries the day on this concept record. It gives the listener the impression that she can handle any style of vocal delivery that the job calls for, and many of those styles are accounted for during this brief first offering.

The story is spelled out for you via voiceover during the first track. Cindy Mayweather (portrayed by Monae) is a robot that has fallen in love with a human. This is unacceptable to the rulers of whatever world we're dealing with so Cindy is scheduled for extermination. Bounty hunters are given the android's exact coordinates, and are also given instructions for collecting their rewards. All of this takes place over Star Wars-type marching music, as you probably already imagined.

You're on your own after that. The songs on "Metropolis" are musically and stylistically schizophrenic. They're dense in the way that Outkast's tracks are dense. There are layers upon layers, and shifts and dips, and blips and noises, and narration and singing. You get the picture, right? Outkast's Big Boi is credited as Co-Executive Producer, and P. Diddy, himself, is THE Executive Producer. I don't know what any of that means except that Monae has friends in high places around Atlanta, and this can't hurt to get her music over to the masses. But the record feels like there are too many cooks in the kitchen. There are songs that I like parts of. Other parts seem extraneous and superficial, not furthering the cause of the song. The story gets lost which is fine with me because I often can't keep up with a musical narration anyway. But if you're going to tell a story, tell it so that it can be understood. That's my thinking, anyway, but this record requires some online investigation if you really want to get down to the meat of the story. (While we're on the subject: my research taught me that this is the first installment in a planned series of records that will eventually complete the narrative. Ambition, indeed.)

Big Boi is apparently responsible for tagging on two songs to the end of the "special edition" that I have. These tracks aren't part of the story & they are my favorites on the record. They're also the least "Outkast-ish" of the lot. They're slower with less layers and Monae has more room to exhibit her exceptional pipes. And I mean to tell you she can sing. There are aspects of jazz, hip-hop, broadway musicals, rock, and everything else in here. The record grew on me after a couple of listens, and I can see her cultivating a rabid fan base if not a huge one. (I can imagine them correcting me for calling her character a robot instead of a cyber-girl...) I'd be curious to see Monae pull this material off live. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she uses a live band in addition to samples and turntables, but I'm making an assumption in that area. It is safe to assume, however, that we have not heard the last of Janelle Monae. I would still recommend "Metropolis" to folks with adventurous taste and a penchant for an army of beats per minute. Put your seat belt on. Monae drives fast and I don't see her slowing down soon.

P.S. I thought it was worth noting that my record (which I ordered online) was autographed by Monae, and that the record is on red vinyl. It's a pretty impressive package for those of us that still value album artwork. If anyone out there is interested, feel free to contact me via Secrets and I'll be happy to tell you where I got it.

Al Green • Lay It Down • Blue Note

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Al Green - Lay It Down - Blue Note

"Lay It Down" is Al Green's third release since his return to secular music in 2003. James Poyser & ?uestlove (of the Roots) teamed up with Green to produce this one, & the results are as close to vintage 1970's Al Green as I can imagine anyone getting. Even Willie Mitchell, who produced Green's other works since his "comeback," didn't get this close. (That's really remarkable considering he was the original producer, and he used the same studio, the surviving musicians, and the same vocal microphone from Green's hey-day.) The guitar intro to the title track on "Lay It Down" serves notice right off the bat that Poyser and company got it right this time. The vibe continues from there & the album would never let up were it not for a couple of unfortunate (but not awful) guest spots from some contemporary purveyors of today's soul music.

Al Green is pretty much his own sub-genre of soul music, I'd say. I mean, is there any question about who you're hearing after just the first few strains of his songs from the 1970's? How, exactly, could his songs benefit from a guest appearance by the likes of John Legend? Legend is a gifted artist with his own vibe. Like Green, he is a favorite with the ladies. He's exceptionally smooth and has a nice niche carved out for himself in today's scene. But he can't go toe-to-toe with Al Green vocally and expect to come out on top. Especially if he's trying to match the Reverend's vocal nuances. Sadly this seems to be the case on "Stay With Me (By the Sea)." It's borderline imitation. Green could have handled this song admirably on his own. The same could be said about Anthony Hamilton's contributions (minus the imitation part). They're not bad. They're superfluous.

But that's a minor gripe about an otherwise stellar album. All of the classic ingredients are in here. Songs about love, and being in love, and how great it is to have fallen in love. The dirty bass, and the dry-as-a-bone snare. Lush orchestral strings. And, of course, Green's staggering vocal prowess. He can still swoon, and pant, and laugh, and shriek, and it all sounds like music. He sings lyrics like, "Hear me now, hear what I say / Hear my plea, because, yeah," and no one will hold him accountable for that if they even notice. Most folks would get laughed out of the studio for such a lyrical offering, but most folks aren't Al Green.

It's a welcome relief to hear a record as sonically honest and appealing as this one, especially considering the dire state of traditional rhythm and blues music in today's culture. It's also a little frustrating. Where are the rest of them? Why couldn't James Brown have made a traditional "James Brown record" prior to his passing? Solomon Burke made one a few years back. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings make them right every time. (It's worth noting that the Dap-Kings Horns handle the reeds on "Lay It Down" too. By now, it's probably safe to say that good soul music is being made whenever the Dap team is around. They should be the mandated house band for any valid soul recording made from this point forward.) Things get a little scarce on the soul scene after that to the best of my knowledge, but I'm always on the lookout and I still want more.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
• Lightning Rod Records

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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Self Titled - Lightning Rod Records

Much has been made of Jason Isbell's past, and plenty has been written about his split with his former band. In fact, I can't recall reading an article that didn't mention it, if not focus on it. With their self-titled new album, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit serve notice that they have moved on. We should too. (Seriously, it's been about two years now.)

Isbell's first solo record, "Sirens of the Ditch," was cobbled together over the course of a few years, and seemed to utilize whatever musicians were handy at the time. Not surprisingly, these were a lot of the same people that would soon become his ex-band mates. "Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit" is a much more cohesive work by a group of musicians with great sensitivity for each others' playing. That's the difference between recording during touring breaks as part of a side project and going into the studio for an alloted amount of time with your own band. These guys have honed their craft to a fine point over the last couple of years, and their new record displays the fruits of that solidarity with copious amounts of melody, sharp lyricism, and old-fashioned rock and roll chops.

There's experimentation too. "Seven-Mile Island" starts things off with some percussive poly-rhythms that are new to Isbell's recorded repertoire. There's a sitar effect which blends nicely with the traditional horn parts accentuating the melancholy message of "No Choice In The Matter." Both of these songs are standout tracks and display Isbell's knack for melodies that stick with you after just one listen. The man also has some imagery that he likes to revisit such as walking on water (which he covers in the first two songs), military personnel ("Sunstroke" and "Soldiers Get Strange"), and the loss or losing of youth ("Cigarettes and Wine"). The latter can come across as a little melodramatic if the listener realizes that Isbell is all of 28 years old, but there are no rules saying that a songwriter has to write from his or her own perspective and maybe the guy just feels old, anyway. You get the impression that he's seen a lot, and it must have been an adult portion too.

I could spend hours trying to come up with interesting superlatives to describe how well I personally connect with this record. It might be best to observe that I didn't even make it through the first side during my initial listen before I picked up my own guitar and began writing. I was inspired, I guess. That made me stop and take stock of what inspires me. I like a great lyric, I like tasteful playing, I like unobtrusive production, and I like songs that are well put-together without pretense. Isbell's got it all, and he's got his band to help him get it over to his audience. There was definitely a time when Isbell was a cog in a larger wheel and that wheel is spinning just fine without him. Now, we have two great bands whose output we can look forward to. Furthermore, Isbell's growth as a musician and performer has put some stylistic miles between the two so we can all spend a little less time with the comparisons. Seriously, it's been about two years now...

Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama • There Will Be A Light
• Virgin Records

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Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama - There Will Be A Light - Virgin Records

Alright. I've tried. I chose to review Ben Harper's collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama because I really want to like the guy's music. For crying out loud, it's hard to dislike anything about the Blind Boys of Alabama. Marc Ford is the guitarist on this one too so I thought this was my big chance to finally latch on to the Ben Harper bandwagon. I just can't seem to make it stick. I don't know what it is, but I can't take this guy as seriously as he seems to take himself. I was standing by the road with my bags packed and my boots on, but I missed the wagon. Again.

Don't get me wrong. No one is embarrassing themselves on "There Will Be A Light." The Blind Boys are in fine form, as always. Things start off well enough with "Take My Hand" which is a down home number that devolves into an a capella solo bit by the Blind Boys' most prominent voice. Things take a turn for the predictable with "Wicked Man." It's another generic groove-rock song with jam-band production in a sea of sameness. Ford sounds awesome. The Blind Boys sound out of place. Harper sounds like he always does.

This seems to be a formula on this record. The slower, more traditional numbers work for the most part. Things fly south when Harper tries to assimilate the Blind Boys' sound into a more modern presentation. "Church House Steps" is a cool, laid back number with a touch of wah-wah guitar that works well enough. "Well, Well, Well" is sparse and dark with some simple dobro work that fits with the Blind Boys gospel style. On the whole, simpler is better on this one, and things get a little bogged down when Harper tries to update the sound. That's probably true of a lot of recordings, but it seems particularly so with regards to this one.

I don't know why I can't commit to being a full-time fan of Ben Harper's. He has a strong voice. He plays his instruments well. He picks good collaborators. Maybe I brought too many preconceptions to the listening party. I was hoping for a gospel record. I got a pop record with gospel shadings. Maybe it's because Harper comes across as a man with a message, a serious musician with an agenda, but he still seems like a lightweight to me. His music is still compelling enough that I'll give his next record a listen if the opportunity arises. Maybe I'll catch that bandwagon on its next pass through.

Various Artists • I'm Not There Soundtrack • Columbia Records

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Various Artists - I'm Not There Soundtrack - Colombia Records

Todd Haynes's film, "I'm Not There," was a polarizing piece of work for a lot of Dylan fans. Some folks thought it was a visionary work of art that effectively summed up the mystery of Bob Dylan's multiple personalities. Others thought it was a confusing lump of meaningless drivel being used as a platform for today's hottest actors to pay homage to one of the 20th century's most compelling artists. I fell somewhere in between. I enjoyed the film. I appreciated the opportunity to look at Dylan's life through multiple lenses in one sitting. I didn't love the movie. I love the soundtrack.

The vinyl version of "I'm Not There" is a box-set without the packaging. It's four records crammed into a single outer sleeve (not even a gatefold) with minimal liner notes, and few extras. Dylan only makes one appearance (on a version of the title track from the "Basement Tapes" era with the Band as his backers). The rest of his songs are covered by a mix of established industry veterans and relative newcomers. There are some truly transcendent performances in this set, and only a couple that you would throw back in the water. It's also an excellent sampler for some of the newer artists' works that you may not have explored yet.

Eddie Vedder is easily one of the more popular contributors on the soundtrack and his version of "Watchtower" is the weakest song of the set. It's basically a cover of Hendrix's cover of the song, and there's nothing new or memorable about the performance. It's a by-the-book reading of a song that's been done to death already, and it's best that they got it out of the way first. There are thirty-three less obvious choices here, and most of them are far more intriguing than Vedder's tired reading. It reminds me of going to a killer show by your favorite band and they let some joker sit in with them only because he's a swell guy - not because he deserves to be there as a musician. Sonic Youth, Jim James (with Calexico), and Richie Havens all pitch in to save side one after Vedder's slow start. That mini-roster gives you kind of an idea of what we're dealing with for the rest of the set. It's a diverse line-up to say the least.

If Vedder's performance is the nadir of the set, the Hold Steady's version of "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" might be the pinnacle. It's a rocker, folks. That's what the Hold Steady does. This one grabs you by the shirt collar, and wears you out. I've been stuck on it for a week now, and there's no end in site. The Black Keys weigh in with a killer version of "Wicked Messenger" that seems patterned after the Faces version from their "First Steps" album. Ramblin' Jack Elliot turns in a moving acoustic "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," and Calexico backs up Willie Nelson, Roger McGuinn, and Iron and Wine, as well as the aforementioned Jim James for a variety of numbers - all of which are standouts (especially James's version of "Goin' To Acapulco"). This is just a quick list of the more memorable numbers in my mind, and we haven't even mentioned John Doe, Jeff Tweedy, Tom Verlaine or Cat Power. They're always up to something good and their input on "I'm Not There" is no exception.

I would recommend this set to most any Dylan fan, and to anyone that wants an easy introduction to the featured artists' works too. The production is classy and unobtrusive. No one tries anything too crazy to stand out from the rest which I think is commendable since the source material is clearly fine without it. My only real problem is with the packaging. One of my records was damaged before the wrapper came off. You can't cram four discs into one outer sleeve with nothing but hard paper inner sleeves as a buffer and expect them to come out unscathed. That seems obvious enough to me so I'm sure there were financial considerations that lead to this abomination. I try to rationalize it by saying that Dylan, himself, has been beaten up some over the years and he seems to be okay for it. That doesn't really wash, but it sure helps to have thirty-plus awesome performances on the record to help make up for it.