Youssou's gospel, Jill Scott's frown
Here's my recent interview with Low, who perform overnight in Duluth on Saturday, October 23-24 (Wellstone Music Day). Fans should check out this documentary, which played at Sound Unseen. I missed it, but it's hard for me to imagine Alan Sparkhawk coming off as "diffident and dislikable." And anyone who cares about Duluth should already be reading this Starfire-and-friends blog (here's Starfire's old Low tour blog). The new Low album is due early next year.
And here's my appreciation of why Youssou N'Dour's Muslim album isn't a career version of the George Harrison song you always skip on Sgt. Pepper's. Check out the new photo of Youssou in this month's Vanity Fair. (For reference: Here's Robert Christgau's review of the same album. Oh, and get this album, this album, and this album. Also, take a look at this amazing discography at the African Music Homepage.)
Lastly, here are some more reviews that have been published elsewhere (with others to come). For a complete archive of my 2004 writing, check out this collection of freelance reviews, as well as my City Pages archive, which I don't always link to.
Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2
Doesn't the video for "Golden" ruin the song? Coming after Donald Byrd's "(Fallin' Like) Dominoes" on my local quiet storm radio station, the lead single from Jill Scott's second studio album could be a lost, timeless disco hit--it has that upbeat '70s melancholia, a little of the old sly militancy too. But Scott is no mere vessel for producers, and her voice has the edgy conviction of the recently self-convinced: When she sings, "I'm taking my freedom/ Putting it on my chain/ Wearing it round my neck," it's as if she had just decided not to pawn it for actual gold.
In the video, of course, she's all smiles: her freedom could be a tampon. But loving Jilly from Philly means hearing that secret frown in the happy authority of her singing, the elusive power that she falls back on, lacking Mary J. Blige's back-row empathy or Erykah Badu's forceful individuality. Scott is more assured than either when it comes to playing with words, too--though she thankfully no longer feels the need to recite them as poetry. With "Golden" (co-written by producer Anthony 'Ant' Bell), she has spun the catchiest pop anthem in two years that doesn't sample the Chi-Lites, and from the simplest handful of repeated phrases. After a few jazz digressions and tinkly ballads, when the album begins to feel like the delivery system for the single that it is, Scott's assured, understated gags keep your attention: "I'm truly sorry, baby, for what I did to you," she exhales on the otherwise middling "Can't Explain." "While you were busy loving me, I was busy, too."
She probably smiles all the time in concert and on video because that's what comes naturally, and she's old-fashioned that way. But there's nothing oldie about the way Jill Scott goofs with your expectations. What's cool about the monogamous brag of "Bedda At Home" is that her unfaithful desire is palpable, even as she enjoys deriding her would-be beefcake-on-the-side. When the sweet strummy jazz of "My Petition" modulates slightly and reveals itself not as a lover's quarrel, but as a citizen's protest, you realize with a wince that she has snuck goddamned George W. Bush in through Tyrone's kitchen. But these smarts are the admirable corollary to the serious depresso-jazz production that has always defined "neo-soul." Remember, the sound that is so often called "traditionalist" was created by one weird rap DJ/producer (Ali Shaheed Muhammad doing D'Angelo) and perfected by another (DJ Jazzy Jeff doing Scott's own debut album). What Jill Scott has achieved with Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2, however uneven the results, is to take a genre by and for aesthetes, and make smarts accessible to people who wouldn't know D'Angelo from Beverly D'Angelo. She's treating her life like it's platinum, too. (From Red Flag Media, 2004.)
"I know it's hard for you to discard what's carved in you," he raps to himself, and that about sums up Brother Ali. The Midwestern hip-hop breakout is either too experienced a battler, or too wise a preacher, to present himself as anything but a bad example. Which is good, because he's on a Joe Strummer-sized mission: "Waheedah's Hands" quotes the chorus of a Bill Withers tune to pay homage to the women who carved him. "Heads Down (You Haven't Done That Yet)" celebrates cunnilingus as man's work. "Chain Link" (with a cameo by Harlem's Vast Aire) is about the workers of the world, via Minneapolis's West Broadway. Atmosphere's Ant provides futurist reggae, alien soul, and funk that evokes gospel without exactly sampling it. Makes you remember that Nas's Illmatic was practically an EP, too. (From Red Flag Media, 2004.)
The Soviettes LP II
Last year's The Soviettes LP had the immediate charm of a hardcore Go-Go's, with unabashed vocals (three female, one male) to match. If it melted away in memory as soon as you put on Le Tigre or Crimson Sweet, it wasn't for lack of hook-writing effort--they just played too fast, and not well enough, for much innovation, let alone lead guitar lines. The whiplash improvement of the sequel is in production (punk AOR!) and lyrics, which toss alcoholism and murder on the chopping block next to Clear Channel and intros like "7, 6, 5, 4, 3-2-1 stop!" The slight improvement is in singing, which was always felt but can now be described as soulful. Maybe they don't need lead guitars after all. (From Red Flag Media, 2004.)