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Alabama Shakes Explore Space, Blow Up Their Sound

This review was originally written for antiquiet.com, you can read the original here.

Don’t Wanna Fight starts off innocuously enough. A bouncing guitar melody echoing from both sides, pleasant on the ears. Then the drums enter, steady and deep, more dusty hip hop sample than Stax retread, booming with purpose. Guitars step in, we’re informed that they’re up to no good. And then that squeal. The whole song is that squeal. There’s a 44 second intro and 3 minutes and nine seconds of an outro surrounding that squeal from Brittany Howard. After 2012’s very-good-but-not-quite-transcendent debut the question lingered; was this the kind of band that would fade away after some early buzz? Would they fuck around and put out a string of boilerplate follow-ups? Don’t Wanna Fight was the first single for the album as well as a sure footed answer to those questions. A resounding “no.”

As tempting as it might have been to keep cooking up Southern soul and classic rock (and when you’ve got a singer and band this good, you can skate by for quite a while with that) the Alabama Shakes have chosen to push themselves further than their debut ever hinted at. Future People rides a stumbling guitar figure propped up by jagged strummed edges, buffeted by ethereal coos before a squelching, fuzz drenched stomp descends for the chorus. Gimme All Your Love rides the airborne mortar shot of Howard’s compelling demand, “If you just GIMME ALL YOUR LOVEEEE” before  landing in an organ drenched pillar of hot magma obliterating your speakers. Be careful not to snap your neck nodding along. Sound And Color is a visceral and visual album, a collection of songs that stick in your head thanks to equal measures of melodies worming their way in and riffs smacking you across the face.

The showstoppers are plentiful, but the more deliberate numbers are just as effective. The opening title track starts with a simple chord progression played on a keyboard that sounds like an organ laid over top of a children’s xylophone. Typically something like this would be pro-forma intro fodder, but it draws you in. There’s swaths of space, not quite identical in length, in between notes that makes even the simplest  playing sound supernatural. It’s an aspect of playing that young bands spend years mastering (echoing the age-old complaint of young bands playing too fast) and Alabama Shakes nails it from the first track.

Album highlight Gemini is a six minute treatise on that idea, a stunner that never breaks from a plodding tempo, yet ratchets up the melodrama and dynamics regardless. The beat is almost stiffing in its consistency, never wavering, but taking long enough between snare hits to make you wonder every time if it’s actually going to land again. Sung in a D’Angelo-esque haze, it’s other-worldly mood matched by the interstellar lyrics, they aren’t just detailing a failed relationship, their blowing the world to pieces with laser-like fuzz guitar ascending from the static. There’s traces of the building blocks that made their debut sound so engaging and familiar, but its expressed in a way that is uniquely and completely theirs.

Given the prevailing tropes around sophomore albums (the slumps, the retreads, etc.) amid ascending expectations, it would have been unfair to expect Alabama Shakes to improve so much this fast. Sound And Color is that rare triumph that sees a group not only begin to master their craft, but to do it in a way that is both familiar and brand new. It’s the same group and the same voice exploding in a thousand different directions

Flying Lotus Explores Death and Corrupts Jazz With ‘You’re Dead’

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This review was originally written for antiquiet.com, you can read the original here.

You’re Dead! is not your typical album. It’s more or less a progressive jazz document from a musician who’s either transcended electronic music, or is pulling it kicking and screaming into his own universe. Feet equally planted in jazz, electronic, hip-hop, and R&B, it’s far ranging enough to make any purist cringe in disgust (always a good thing). The record is bewildering and brief on a casual listen. Meditative and astonishingly deep on closer inspection. Depending on how you listen, it could be constantly transitioning to itself, like being lost on baggage claim. Or a grander statement, each piece subtly connected to every other.

The record, it should be said, is a concept record. As he’s explained in interviews the idea was to document the moment of death. Each song (perhaps movement would be more fitting) a look from a different perspective. Putting music to the transcendence, the confusion, the ascent, the dissipating, the descent that we’ll all eventually share.

You’re Dead! starts with a suite of otherworldly jazz, four tracks blending into a swirling vortex. It features the musical aid of none other than one Herbie Hancock, but it’s a far cry from Head Hunters. Flying Lotus seems more interested in chopping up the component parts and reassembling them in haphazard fashion. A hip-hop producer’s approach to full band direction perhaps: drums swing as atonal saxophone shredding pans from ear to ear, the whole arrangement swells to the pulse of Thundercat’s ever wandering, frenetic bass work. The groove is hinted at, but it’s hiding under the entire group’s insistence to run in every direction at once while tethered to a shared center of gravity, inevitably snapping back into either mass hysteria or a gorgeous but temporary universal truce.

And after all that sonic chaos Flying Lotus presents to you: probably the best damn hip-hop song of the year. First single Never Catch Me initially fooled me into thinking that You’re Dead! would finally be Flying Lotus’ first complete step into accessibility. Instead (and in context), it’s a respite of expertly crafted conventional wisdom in a record marked by existential questions. Both a detour and a centerpiece, with a killer bass solo and a robot Kendrick Lamar.

I could continue trying to describe complex and nuanced expression with mere words, but suffice to say the rest of the record delivers, a thrilling exploration both sonically and thematically. Whether through ethereal sighs, demented rants, skyward pleas, or universal protests, You’re Dead! is 19 gasps at a shared fate. And one collective shout into the void.

Shedding a Tentative, Rambling Light on Old Smokey’s ‘Wester Easter’

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A bit of a confession.  I don’t know much about this record.  I only vaguely know who’s responsible (some occasional members of Olivia Tremor Control and Vic Chesnutt’s band, according to the handy sticker on my record jacket).  I’m mostly unfamiliar with the myriad influences here, and honestly feel unqualified to speak much about an album filled with music that has only tenuous connections to the worlds I typically deal in.  I bought this record on a whim while in Athens, Georgia’s wonderful Wuxtry Records, and only did that because the giant wooden dancer on the cover spoke to me in ways I didn’t fully comprehend (this is a wonderful way to buy records by the way, it has never steered me wrong).

The music here occasionally sounds like folk and classic country.  It occasionally sounds like a New Orleans funeral procession, and often like a long lost pre-rock Psychedelic album.  Some of it sounds vaguely Native American, but that could be the cover coloring my perceptions.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album with so much clarinet.  I’m reminded of Modest Mouse at times, at their freakiest and folkiest, but I think that says more about my lack of knowledge than it does about the music itself.

Remarkably this mix never feels disjointed from song to song, each shrouded in mystery with influences bleeding together like watercolors.  The disparate parts form a heady mix as a banjo-led, middle eastern dirge dives into unconventional yet familiar folk rock.  The sharp left turns shouldn’t work on paper, but the album leaves the impression that an underlying presence is at work, and it comes across in the details more than the aesthetic signifiers.

What drives these songs is the sense of barely contained chaos and brooding existentialism in the instrumentation.  Banjo riffs attack frenzied and heavy, pedal steel adds a wistful lightness that’s more heartbreaking than uplifting, the percussion, in it’s many forms, plods with a creeping inevitability, while fiddles buzz menacingly.  The music is often bracing, even when it’s completely off kilter, but the effect is belied by the coying fullness of the clarinet and horn parts.

These unconventional instruments anchor most of the songs here, thick beams of light teasing out melodies pitched somewhere between schoolyard chants and childish lullabies.  They’re the parts most likely to push away casual listeners while being the easiest pieces to get lodged into your skull.  It makes for an intriguing dynamic throughout the record.  As the base arrangements and lyrics boil over with churning anxiousness and guarded catharsis the horn parts serve to pervert and amplify whatever feeling is at work.  They serve as the helping hand in times of need; the unrealistic perceptions we measure ourselves against; the hollow promise behind a tired cliche; a reliable slice of illogical but much needed optimism.  The back and forth is fought throughout the record,  the end result an uneasy existential truce that feels hard won but well earned.

And yet, after all that poetic waxing, the showstopper of the album does away with that dynamic entirely.  “Everyday I’m Building a Fool” has everything a great folk ballad could want; tinges of regret and loss, a self deprecating wit balanced with a slice of unknowable oddness; harmonies suitably gorgeous, coming when least expected but most needed;  fiddle playing that is not to be fucked with, and a stomp that hits like the weight of the world falling on your chest at every beat.

Wester Easter is a record that feels like a place to explore.  It manages that tricky feat where it brings together the emotions underlying the songs and the details propelling them together to feel like a realized whole, even when the songs feel as if they’re falling apart.  Simply put, Wester Easter is a fantastic place to be lost.

The Black Keys Continue Their Arena Dominance with ‘Turn Blue’

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This review was originally published at antiquiet.com. You can read it in its original form here.

The Black Keys have never been good at playing the part they’ve been cast in.  Starting out in the clubs of Akron, Ohio,  Dan Auerbach was fond of saying the bad was too bluesy for the punk crowd, too punk for the blues crowd.  Now he’s the frontman for the sorta-two-piece blues-rock-soul outfit that happens to be among the biggest rock bands in the world.  They’ve been characterized as rigid traditionalists and crass sellouts.  A quick perusal of customer reviews will show accusations from long-time fans and blues purists deriding the synthesizers, disco-heavy beats, and Danger Mouse’s atmospheric fluff.  At every turn the band has managed to find a new set of complaints to be levied against them.  And with Turn Blue, the group’s 8th album, they manage to plant themselves in every detractors cross-hairs, coming away gloriously with one of their strongest records to date, one that solidifies every strength they’ve been honing for years since turning away from their early two-man riff rock.

This wonderful mess of contradictions is made apparent from the get go as “Weight of Love” starts with a country-blues-esque acoustic guitar before being joined by piano melodies and crashing drum fills.  And then, an honest-to-god, skyward-reaching, guitar solo comes in.  Fuzz drenched and emerging from a low rumble, more David Gilmour than Junior Kimbrough.  They’ve never sounded so much like a classic rock band, yet they sound as vital as ever.  The song ends in twin guitar carnage, left and right matching each other note for note, building to a thrilling climax.

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And from there they proceed to roll through every trick in their ever-growing arsenal.  “In Time” starts with a crooked railroad spike beat before turning into a horn fueled New Orleans-ian stomp.  “Fever” takes the currently omnipresent disco back beat and turns it into the sort of arena rock stomp the Black Keys have perfected of late (albeit with a synthesizer lead where distorted guitars once reigned for them). Meanwhile the title-track disassembles the four-on-the-floor approach into a pulsing bass line and crashing symbols, turning down the bravado and upping the sultry quotient by several times.  It’s the sound of falling into quicksand, being pulled under, and falling out the bottom into a pit of recently fluffed pillows waiting below.   It’s an intriguing track, and a testament to how far the group has come in their songwriting, being able to apply their tried-and-true approaches to new sounds.

And the new sounds are brought in by the bus load compliments of producer Danger Mouse.  From the horn fueled fanfare that spell the verses on “In Time” to the crystalline harmonies that overtake and power “Year in Review” or the encroaching wall of fuzz in “10 Lovers”, the details are exquisitely rendered, and I’ll admit to getting a bit giddy at some of the hidden gems tucked behind Auerbach’s full voice.

A voice which is also the star of the show here.  From the beginning of their career, he’s sounded most at home with a ragged bellowing over top Patrick Carney’s oversize beats.  The biggest treat here though is the falsetto that came as such a shock on Brothers’ opener, “Everlasting Love”.  What once was a new trick is now a favorite weapon, deployed strategically throughout the album as either a buoyant ray of light on the bass heavy beats or for a disarming turn of phrase.

What’s most impressive, though, is that his growth as a singer is matched by his growth as a songwriter.  I’ve never so thoroughly enjoyed watching a band delve into the mainstream consciousness as I have the Black Keys, and a large part of that is due to the growth in Dan Auerbach’s songwriting.  Where he once relied on matching tried-and-true blues boilerplates with big riffs, his obsession with soul and R&B paired with a knack for surprisingly catchy melodies allow a wider variety.  Of the many bands mining classic soul and blues, few make it theirs like the Black Keys do.

And even fewer, it should be said, have the likes of Danger Mouse to give their songs a psychedelic depth and Carney’s facility at turning a slow burner into a low-end heavy, radio-friendly blaze.  Almost-closer “In Our Prime” is a perfect example of that growth, the emotional centerpiece of the record that starts as a standard R&B ballad until the first verse ends and you’re thrown into a see-sawing trapdoor; deceptively upbeat and subtly disconcerting.  The chorus offers the emotional payoff the beginning promised while never really offering the catharsis you’d expect, “we made our mark when we were in our prime”.

It’s a relatable lament, but one that doesn’t quite ring true for the Black Keys.  Whether they’re in their prime or not is debatable, but regardless, Turn Blue is among the strongest offerings yet from a band that is slowly but surely solidifying themselves among the greats.

Black Girls Continue Their Psych-Funk Reign of RVA with ‘Claire Sinclaire’

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Two bass hits. Kick drum. Snare.  Again.  Hi-hats slot themselves in between.  REPEAT! Richmond, Virginia’s  Black Girls have never been a subtle band and not yet half a dozen seconds into their second album, Claire Sinclaire, they’ve established what your next 35 minutes are going to be about.  Funk and soul had always been an influence, but now it’s a mandate.  There’s swagger and energy, a groove that pretends to accidentally bump into you then grinds into your hips.  You’re not sure if you want to join, but you probably will.  Singer Drew Gilham slides in with a whisper.  He exhales the next line, doesn’t even sing it.  Coos to you next.  Guitars descend and suddenly it’s no longer a suggestion, “You’ve got to get your hands up..if I survive, I will supply!”

“On the First Night” suggests Black Girls is narrowing its focus to the soul funk inflections that made their last album, 2011’s Hell Dragon such a danceable affair, and to a certain extent that’s true.  “Soul Tornado” is propelled with spiked jazz chords and a disco beat, “Waltz” kicks its feet up again drapes of piano and a Stax-esque hi-hat and cymbal ride, and “Del Mar” would be a disco ballad if not for the fuzzed out guitar lines.  The touches share a common theme but the album’s most fun when they stretch themselves out of that box.

“Bangin’ LA” grinds, but not the kind the band typically deals in.  This is more of a slow motion jackhammer dismantling a lawn mower as a tiny war elephant looks on (and that ripping sax solo is the sound of said war elephant fighting said lawn mower as a nearby bonfire is fed a crate of worn-out Sticky Fingers records).   First single “Buyin’ Time” nestles surf-rock guitars next  to jaunty indie pop and buckets of reverb (while not my favorite piece of work here here, it seems directly targeted to indie-blogs who eat up anything described by the words surf and pop and slathered in reverb), and “Waltz” has a literal countdown to the solo while the coda to “Sometimes” allows the shimmying psych-soul nugget to soar away on guitar-solo wings.

 

And then there’s “Lover”, a staple of their live set for some time and a perfect distillation of the funk, soul, and psychedelics that Black Girls likes to call snuff rock.  As pop songcraft it’s as effortless as it is masterful.  The kind of song that walks up to you to hold your hand but cops a feel instead.  Guitars wah, the beat struts, a trumpet circles in from above, all grinding to a halt for the chorus.  Sung slightly differently every time, yet always pitched with an indelible mix of resentment, determination, lament,  and wistful hope, “If I was your lover/You should know/I’d treat you better”.

As sophmore albums go, it’s hard to do better than Claire Sinclaire does here.  The record shows a further refinement of their sound while branching out enough to bring in new fans.  It’s weird but accessible, danceable but complex.  It’s an exciting next step for a band that seems to be getting better and better.

Sleepwalkers Introduce Themselves with 7″ Single

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I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I happened upon the Sleepwalkers debut release.  I’ve seen them play a handful of times, and in each show they seemed to be juggling several identities.  The songs cycled between near-stoner-rock riffology, Americana-tinged rock, glam-indebted psych-funk, and (inexplicably) 80’s pop rock.  If this 7-inch is any indication though, they’re ready to bring it all together.

“Crisis” leads things off with a swinging bass line and stuttering drums underpinning Michael York’s coos and come-ons.  The song builds and sways, layering melodies, reverbed harmonies, and descending guitar riffs.  What could have been a concise pop song stretches out into a funky three guitar trance punctuated with tangles of pre-choruses, each catchier than the last, and the track’s all the better for it.

“Prey & Pressure” rounds out the set, a psych-rock workout with an indelibly simple riff.  Equal parts ear worm and meat tenderizer, it’s a riff that strikes that cerebral sense of inevitability.  You know it will reliably hit on the downbeat, yet through every iteration it seems to lag in mid-air for a second too long, you un-wince believing the danger gone, and finally it falls from the sky with a floor tom thud.  This is a tricky kind of riff to pull of.  It’s made all the more powerful when the chorus comes in, “I’m feeling pressure all the TIME!”  It’s a commendable wail but I can’t help but want to peel off the glossy reverb and let some of the ragged tone the song calls for shine through.

Still, Sleepwalkers are showing they have a lot to offer and, if this initial release is any indication, they’re proper debut could be something special.

You can listen to and buy the single here.

 

Drive-By Truckers Continue Their Run of Thoughtful Songwriting and Straight-Up Rock & Roll with ‘English Oceans’

This review was originally published at antiquiet.com. You can read it in its original form here.

English Oceans has a few dead bodies. The album has some strippers, asshole politicians, broken relationships, girls making clowns of men, and people in small towns working jobs they hate. Which is to say, it’s a Drive-By Truckers album. And a damn good one at that. While their last record, 2011’s Go-Go Boots saw the band tip-toeing into R&B and Southern soul, English Oceans is a more focused effort that finds them eager to lay into their latest cast of motley characters over stomping, crunching riffs.

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In general, I’ll admit to being skeptical of the storytelling style of songwriting. There are a lot of songwriters that throw in a handful of proper nouns, add some folksy wisdom, and tie it together with a facile ending. What separates a truly skilled songwriter from the rest is when those details add up to something meaningful, when a songwriter is able to turn a collection of stories into a cast of characters so that the situations, disconnected as they may be, are able to play off of each other to say something bigger than what any one individual story line can offer.

Patterson Hood’s songs on this record pull this off masterfully, examining relationships from differing points of view. Though the stories don’t appear to be connected, they work together to create something larger than themselves. There’s the woman in “Pauline Hawkins” resisting the bonds of genuine connection (“Love is like cancer / And I am immune”) pressed against the one in “When He’s Gone” clinging to a relationship that’s gone south (“She can’t stand him when he’s around / But she always misses him when he’s gone…”) The protagonist in “Hanging On” exhausts her familial relationship and ends up a wanderer searching for a replacement while “Walter Went Crazy” details a man driven mad by suburban life who burns down the house with his wife inside, “Matlock on the TV screen and her mama on the phone.” The album ends with “Grand Canyon”, written for a recently deceased friend of the band. Where most songwriters would try to wring every bit of pathos they could from such heavy subject matter, Hood opts for a more understated route, so that when the line “And I wonder how a life so sturdy / Could just one day cease to be” slips in it hits all the harder for it. After case studies on relationships broken, breaking, and doomed, we’re left with one that continues on even after they’re gone.

Cooley’s songs, on the other hand, don’t aspire for such thematic continuity, but lyrically this might be his best batch of songs to date. He has a talent for hiding profound wisdom in the most mundane situations and no where is that more apparent than the first verse of “Shit Shots Count”. What starts as small town scene setting, “Put your cigarette out and put your hat back on / Don’t mix up which is which” turns pensive quick, “Suburban four lanes move like blood through an old man’s dying heart / Nothing but time to keep hope alive at the speed of a stream of tar…” Not that you need a lyric sheet to fully appreciate it, the song’s a shit kicker in it’s own right with a riff that sounds like churning a bucket of nails while lead guitar pierces through the mesh and the ascending bass line on the changes emerges from behind the clatter, lays down legs and barrels the whole thing over. “First Air Of Autumn”, on the other hand, is a slice of gentle folk with a quick heartbeat, not so much a story as scene setting with the occasional jab for the gut, “First air of autumn up your nose / Popcorn, heavy hairspray, nylon pantyhose / Please stand and bow your heads and pray you don’t get old…”

But it’s the almost-title-track “Made Up English Oceans” that proves to be the crux of the record. Based around an incessant acoustic guitar strum, Cooley lets out quick witted venom against backwards politics and the ones who believe it “See, once you grab them by the pride their hearts are bound to follow / Their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural… ‘Cause only simple men can see the logic in whatever / Smarter men can whittle down so you can fit it on a sticker… They’ll live it like it’s gospel and they’ll quote it like it’s scripture…” It’s followed by Hood’s “Part Of Him”, a scathing take down set to the catchiest riff on the record and a jaunty beat. The wistful delivery belies the anger in lines like “He was elected / wing-nut raised and corn fed / tea bags dragging on the chamber floor.”

Now all that isn’t to say the album’s without fault. Most songs are a little too willing to find a riff and ride it through until the end of the song, coming and going without offering the kinds of dynamics and hooks that attract non-believers.

But that’s kind of missing the point. English Oceans thrives on the confidence of the songwriting. It’s a record whose stories, lyrics, and riffs construct a world meant to be lost in and experienced. There’s not a whole lot of bands who continue to show growth and refinement 10 albums in, but with English Oceans, the Drive-By Truckers show they have a lot more to offer.

The Roots’ ‘Things Fall Apart’ Turns 15

This review was originally published at antiquiet.com.  You can read it in its original form here.

15 years ago today The Roots released Things Fall Apart, easily among their finest records. While it’s a damn good album by a band that’s been making compelling hip hop (and putting on one of the best live shows of any genre) for the past two decades, what might be most interesting about Things Fall Apart is what it failed to be, and how in the end it didn’t really matter.

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Things Fall Apart was supposed to be the start of a new era for The Roots. Three albums in with a moderate hit under their belts, this should have been the work that pushed them over the edge. With the newly formed Soulquarians, this record was also supposed to introduce the world to their vision for music in the new millennium. Albums by Erykah Badu and D’Angelo were waiting in the wings and Things Fall Apart was to be the first shot fired in a string of would-be classic records. In practice Things Fall Apart was successful, though it fell shy of its grand ambitions.

roots-tfaThe record produced a hit with “You Got Me” and ended up going platinum, but that was pre-file-sharing, and the single peaked only at #39. And while the Soulquarians went on to produce some great Neo-Soul albums, the movement was looking more like a footnote by the time the mid-2000s rolled around. Interestingly, though, drummer and bandleader ?uestlove seemed to have seen this coming. The album starts with an excerpt from Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, a heated exchange on the characters’ frustration at not reaching the audience they want. The final shot is “you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like, if you played the shit that they like the people will come!” countered by another voice (not from the movie): “inevitably hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable; they’re not maximized as product even, not to mention as art.”

It’s this dichotomy that informs The Roots’ approach here, and might help explain why the album never attained those grand ambitions. Things Fall Apart desperately wants to connect, to be a part of the fabric of Hip Hop, but is unwilling to do it on anyone else’s terms. What it seems the Roots intended to do with Things Fall Apart and the Soulquarians records in general is to internalize and expand on their heroes (Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc. according to liner notes). Their humble quest was to make timeless music and have it resonate with the world. All bullshit, numbers, and context aside, that doesn’t really matter, because what we have 15 years later is a great Hip Hop record.

Which might be a bit of an undersell. Musically and compositionally Things Fall Apart sees the Roots at the height of their powers. As a pure headphone experience, not many records even aspire to what The Roots pull off here. The bass is luxurious, the pocket in every song extra-deep allowing details to skitter in and out from ear to ear. The arrangements are complex but never feel overstuffed, every part has its place, though it might take you a few dozen listens to hear each one.

Take “Act Too (Love Of My Life)”; what starts as a simple three-note horn melody is doubled, then tripled. Sampled female vocals add rhythm, a syncopated bass line wafts in from three closed doors away, and by the time you work out what’s happened the parts snap into focus, Black Thought’s verse is front and center and what should have been a ho-hum by the book buildup becomes something much more. That’s not even considering the lyrical contributions from Black Thought and Common (including Common’s near thesis statement in the line “when we perform it’s coffee shop chicks and white dudes”) or the gorgeous Philly Soul string section the track sees itself out on.

Every song on display here stands up to similar dissection and if nothing else, this record deserves a revisit for that reason alone. And though Things Fall Apart didn’t quite live up to its makers lofty aspirations, The Roots didn’t need it to in order to reach the level of universal respect as musicians and cultural ambassadors they’ve strived for. And they didn’t even need to rewrite history to do it, they just had to sign up as the Late Night house band for an SNL-dropout.

More Gut Bucket Soul from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings

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This review was originally published at antiquiet.com.  You can read it in its original form here.

Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – Give the People What They Want

It’s odd to think of an act as retro-minded as Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings as evolving, but that’s exactly what this band has been doing over the past 10 years. Their first album was a collection of screamin’ soul booty shakers, heavy on groove but light on songs. Fast forward to 2010’s I Learned The Hard Way, and this band is writing songs that stand head and shoulders with the source material they so joyously make their own. Give The People What They Want is a worthy addition to possibly the strongest catalog of modern day soul today, a record that boasts a sharper songwriting acumen and continuously inventive arrangements. They may not be pushing boundaries but what they do they do damn well, and when it comes to making music that hits the gut and the hips, that’s what matters most.

Stranger To My Happiness may be the best distillation yet of what this group does right.  Opening with a swaying horn riff countered with a walking single note guitar line, the way is cleared for Sharon’s barn burning vocals. The delivery is what sets Sharon apart from her many counterparts. Stranger To My Happiness isn’t an outpouring of love or wallowing in despair, extremes that lesser singers happily mine for oversinging. This song instead inhabits the messy middle that makes up life. When she declares she’s the stranger, it’s neither joy nor sorrow, it’s resolve, determination, and acceptance, the nuances of the performance turning what could have been an exercise in woe-is-me drudgery into a hesitant yet joyous rumination on being uncomfortable with happiness.

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Elsewhere, Retreat! is a possibly tongue-in-cheek stomp warding off suitors while We Get Along is half love song, half political call to harmonious arms backed by a slinky back beat. You’ll Be Lonely brings the brass section, twisting from a jazzy solo turn to Beatles-esque fanfare to Muscle Shoals strut. Long Time, Wrong Time sounds like it could be Motown returning the favor and covering Creedence Clearwater Revival, which is as glorious and convoluted as it might sound.

Ironically though, the song that anchors Give The People What They Want is People Don’t Get What They Deserve. Especially poignant after Sharon’s cancer diagnosis (and the triumphant battle that delayed the record’s release) the track is a silky screed, balancing incisive acrimony with an indelible xylophone melody. Sharon attacks the song with her usual gusto, pushing over platitudes and describing the “man who was born with a fortune / a hard day’s work he’s never known.” The real star here though (and the secret weapon of much of the album) is the Dapettes providing harmony.  The backup singers respond to Sharon’s every line as they chide, goad, and swoon before hitting the chorus where they lay down the hammer of the law with menacing authority. “People! Don’t. Get. What. They. Deserve!”

It’s hard not to see that in the context of her own health issues. But she’s persevered, and though the record was written before such hardship, it’s easy to see the personality in the songs that made that possible. At the core of great soul music is that sense of fortitude and resilience. That even at our lowest, there’s a communal catharsis around the corner for those that don’t give in. The music of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings can feel tied to a certain time and sound, but the core of what they make is timeless. As long as the sounds they make still move people, there’s going to be a place for this kind of music.

A Look Back At Call Me Lightning’s Soft Skeletons

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This review is something of a Look Back, where I feel compelled to write reviews for albums long past their prime buzz period.  Mostly because I’m a slouch who’s missed out on countless great records, but at least partly because the deluge of music made available makes keeping up with everything virtually impossible.  The Look Back is a chance to shed some well deserved light on albums that flew under my radar.

Call Me Lightning – Soft Skeletons

I am two and a half songs into my first ever listen of Call Me Lightning’s Soft Skeletons and I’m overtaken with a familiar feeling.  Instead of some flowery prose on how it feels I’ll give it you my current gist succinctly, “Holy fuck this is awesome.”  And for some reason, instead of leaning back, turning up the volume a couple of notches and basking in the all out punk glory that is this record, I feel compelled to try something new: an in-progress-record-review.  First, a summary of how we got to be two and a half (now three, I suppose) songs into this record.

We started with “Meet the Skeletons”, a pulsing back beat with a descending riffage gradually building tension.  The song offers no release though, that’s what track two is for.  “Billion Eyes” followed.  I listened twice.  It comes in a bluster, furiously grooves, slides out with energy high.  “Bottles and Bottles” charged out of the headphones and into my fragile mind next and halfway through this song I feel it necessary to comment.  So here we are.

You could argue, and I’d agree, that reviewing a record while listening is foolish, unfair to the artist, and that if I’m writing about the music, I couldn’t possibly be giving it the full attention necessary to have an informed and trenchant opinion on it.  That this is an exercise in misguided exuberance.  And you, faithful, hypothetical reader, would be right.  But seeing as I have already set about writing about rock music, I would argue that my guide isn’t well calibrated to begin with, and seeing as I have now spent roughly two songs justifying this exercise it’s time to get to it.

Call Me Lightning are a rock (you could call them some flavor of punk if you’d prefer) band from Milwaukee.  They make music that inspires either boisterous moshing or vigorous head bobbing while considering your existential insignificance, depending on the individual.  Soft Skeletons is the kind of album that inspires speeding tickets, enthusiastic beer drinking, and vaguely drunken post-midnight conversations on the nature of fucking up and the universe at large.  Drum fills punctuate just about every rousing chorus, spidery guitar figures meld with straight ahead hard charging riffs, the bass lines punch through the mess and accomplish the exceedingly tricky feat of buoying the rhythm section while melodically filling out the arrangement.  And then the vocals.  All manic energy and joyful desperation, the sound of someone on the brink of their grip on life lost in the catharsis that is the glorious noise this band makes.  I am now on “Shook House Shakedown”, a distillation of what they are doing so well.  The repetitive guitar riff marches with mechanical precision, the rhythm section is a drunken war elephant pushing ahead in a violent tumble, each beat recovering it’s stance before stumbling yet again.  The bridge is all menacing bass drive punctuated with the singer’s last breaths of sanity.

Sometimes catharsis comes in the skyward release of sing-alongs, harmonies, and ostentatiously important lyrics.  Often times more  appealingly, rock and roll can give us release through the reckless abandon, boundless energy, and manic reveries this album provides.  Not often do bands capture that feeling so well, but with Soft Skeletons, Call Me Lightning have done just that.