Photo by Steven lamJILL SCOTT Who Is Jill Scott? (Hidden Beach/Epic)
There is a question that hip-hop, for all its touted liberating qualities, has not yet answered. In fact, the question has been made thornier, more problematic. How does a grown woman, a black woman, be sexual? Not just sexy, but sexual? Especially if she chooses as her role models figures other than Madonna, Marilyn or the 15-year-old (male) thug up the street especially if she wants to stay whole in the process. Erykah Badu seems to have figured it out. So has Lauryn Hill. But theyre a minority among the onslaught of Cristal-swigging, blond-weaved, booty-baring sisters struggling with the question on the pop-culture video screen. And their answers, at least as their real lives spill across tabloid pages, often seem tied to old-school rhythms of heartache and betrayal, dreams put on hold.
On the track Love Rain, from her album Who Is Jill Scott?, Jill Scott gives one example of how it might be done. Her voice is high in the mix, sultry and strong. In a tight spoken-word performance (she also sings the hook), Scott pulls erotic energy from the details of an ordinary day, ordinary things: a walk through the city, ripe peaches, penny candy, warm summer nights. Innuendo flits in and out of point-blank musings on the wet and willing cootchie and the man who made it so a man who woos her with talk of Mumia and reparations. (Who could resist?) The music accompanying her recollection is soft but insistent, anchored by a hard-held beat; its sparse, but sexy as hell. Outside hip-hop circles, the Philly-based Scott is best known as the woman who penned the hook to the Roots hit You Got Me. In the original, Grammy-winning recording, Ms. Badu sings the words; Scott made them her own again by performing it on the Roots live album, The Roots Come Alive, where she pumps the song up with a fierce freestyle. A poet, songwriter and singer, Scott has a voice thats a more muscular, less nasal version of Badus; in her reading of You Got Me, she enunciates clearly where Badu slurs artfully.
Scotts vibe, sustained and maintained in part by co-executive producer Jazzy Jeff (underrated after all these years), is plainly that of the neo-soul movement, accessed via jazz, hip-hop and poetry slams. But where so many recent artists have bitten influences to the point of rendering themselves irrelevant, Scott carefully draws on sources as diverse as Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott-Heron and Miles Davis, tapping into their spirits, and not just recycling their riffs and ruminations. As a result, Who Is Jill Scott? is one of the best albums of the year. No question.
ANTIBALAS AFROBEAT ORCHESTRA Liberation Afrobeat (Afrosound)
The Afrobeat re-revolution is clearly upon us. Almost three years after his death, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian progenitor of the sound, is enjoying a surge in discovery thanks to a tell-all book and a massive reissue series; his son Femi Kuti has become a new world pop icon; and rap artists like Common and Blackalicious have caught the Afrobeat bug in their own music. Its little surprise that this renewed interest has helped birth groups dedicated to taking Afrobeat into the 21st century. Answering the call is Martin Antibalas and his 13-piece Afrobeat Orchestra, assembling an impressive debut with Liberation Afrobeat.
Though Afrobeat owes a big nod to James Browns pioneering funk jams, compared to the Godfathers frenetic, cold sweatinducing pace, Liberation is downright languid, infinitely patient in its unraveling narrative. Songs like N.E.S.T.A. and Dirt and Blood slowly wind through layers of repetitive rhythmic sections, unfolding like clenched fists. Riddims are kept taut, laced with dissonant brass stabs and chicken-scratch guitars, stripped down into minimalist beat-n-bassline sessions, only to ramp back up to raucous climaxes. And Antibalas works in an added Afro-Latin sensibility, captured best in the breakbeat orgy of congas and cowbells that kicks off Battle of the Species. Running at an average of seven minutes, the songs are reminiscent of Kutis accessibly shorter works in the early 70s, before he started dropping his renowned 20-minute monsters.
Like the utopian vision of P-Funk, Antibalas (español for bulletproof) also envisions one world under the groove, but unlike George Clintons Afrofuturism, the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra aims toward the ground with an urgent, earthy drive. Bearing a torch for Kutis political as well as musical vision, Antibalas blends the impulses of working-class rhythms from both sides of the Atlantic, creating a space for cross-cultural solidarity on the dance floor, all under the benevolent guidance of the One. (www.antibalas.com) (Oliver Wang)
DONALD CROCKETT Array et al. (Laurel)
Pasadena-born Donald Crockett leads the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble probably the towns most undersung new-music group and also happens to be one of Americas most distinctive midcareer composers. The two string quartets and one violin duo here, dating from the late 1980s and early 90s, provide as good a glimpse as any on CD of Crocketts style and sensibility. Of course, you dont get a sense of his sometimes dramatically explosive writing for larger ensembles, but the pellucid scoring that offsets such orchestral fireworks is found here in the delicious, unpredictable harmonies. The melodic lines, alternately spiky and ruminative, keep turning back on themselves and hovering around particular tones an oblique conjuring of Minimalisms patterned repetition and the drone of Middle Eastern string music then leaping off in bounding, subtly syncopated phrases. Especially with the melodic orbiting, Crocketts music implies a tonal center, but never insists.
A hundred years after Debussys heyday, this work takes another look at chromaticism, and does so in ways that are variously dry, witty, dreamy (the duo to be sung on the water has the restrained, ethereal quality, if not quite the meditative focus, of a Morton Feldman piece), elegant, casual and sprightly by turns. The Stanford String Quartet, based at the university, plays the three works with insight, aplomb and passion. Now lets get some of Crocketts orchestral stuff on disc. (Peter Frank)
FUTURE BIBLE HEROES Im Lonely (And I Love It) (Merge)
Years ago, listening to the first Magnetic Fields CD, I thought of Stephin Merritt as a junkyard magician, collecting scrapped melodies from 30s pop, 60s soul and all kinds of rock music, then using gap-toothed toy pianos and hiccuping drum machines to fashion something sweet and spellbinding with them. But over the last 12 months, Ive begun to believe hes considerably more. First came 69 Love Songs, 1999s colossal three-disc Magnetic Fields set, which is most astounding because it seeded a tune-hostile pop scene with shamelessly romantic songfulness, or maybe because at least 45 of the 69 tracks are magnificent. Then came the bands enthralling performance at El Rey in June. Backed by cello, ukulele, guitar and piano instead of bent electronics, Merritts wry songs sounded stranger, funnier, more magical than ever.
And thats why he cant get away with clunky side projects like Future Bible Heroes anymore. Merritt has always had multiple aliases (the Gothic Archies, the 6ths, etc.). Future Bible Heroes is Merritt, Magnetic Fields pianist/manager/co-vocalist Claudia Gonson and DJ/electronics luminary Christopher Ewen. Ewen and Merritt write the songs, Gonson and Merritt sing, Ewen programs the music. The musics the problem. Given a typically goofy, urbane Merritt turn of phrase like You can find your own messiah/in the pit of a papaya, Ewen crafts the most predictable and robotic of faux-techno settings. There are mildly bumping drums and sequencers, but no Hawaii, no magic and, most fatally of all, no melody.
At El Rey, Gonson earthy, alternately cynical and naive proved ideal ballast for Merritts perfect pop balloons. She sings gamely on these leaden tracks, but shes out of her element; her role seems much more crucial, somehow, once the tunes are in the air. (Glen Hirshberg)
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PHOENIX United (Astralwerks/Source)
In 1975, the Bee Gees revitalized a career spent chasing Lennon/McCartney-style respectability by redefining the soul-music utopia of disco as a playground for polyester-clad sweathogs. United, the debut album from French band Phoenix, owes a lot to the Gibb brothers soft-rock-disco approach, updating that blend as house-conscious, self-aware pastiche rather than shrewd attempt at riding dance-floor chic to pop-music celebrity.
Thomas Mars (vocals), Deck DArcy (bass) and Christian Mazzalai (guitars) first appeared to a wide audience with a disco-flavored house track on 1998s Source Material compilation. Representing a community of artists including Daft Punk and Air, the Paris-based Source label is usually a home for down-tempo abstraction, instrumental hip-hop and pop-friendly house music, but United is an album more concerned with digging in the crates for the catchy synth styling of 80s rock. Phillipe Zdar, a part of French house mainstays Cassius and Motorbass (also the producer behind a chunk of MC Solaars catalog), helps to round out the rhythmic priorities of the bands cheery sound with his mix, but beyond the kicky buoyancy of its percussion, Phoenix sounds about as hip-hop as Hall & Oates. Funky Squaredance serves as a microcosm of the scattered aesthetic: It starts out as funereal soft-rock vocoder country, and three minutes in it fades into electro beats only to erupt with a guitar solo paraphrased from 1984. It could be a 10-minute-long Beck outtake if he made collages instead of crossbreeds.
Where misread revivalists Ween have been working similar territory with surreal impudence, Phoenix are pretty straightforward: We may laugh at the apparent irony of lyrics about spending summer days sailing and hunting for truffles, but its not always clear that theyre kidding around. Theyre like a group of French exchange students cruising to the beach bumping Jive Talkin in their suburban host familys tricked-out Firebird. (Daniel Chamberlin)