Audio News

May 2021 Pop/Rock Record Reviews

May 2021 Pop/Rock Record Reviews

Jon Batiste: We Are
Verve B0033337-01 (LP), B0033358-02 (CD). 2021. Jon Batiste, King Garbage, Mikey Freedom Hart, DJ Kahlil, et al., prods.; Russell Elevado, Misha Kachkachishvili, Kizzo, Joseph Lorge, et al., engs.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Jon Batiste is something of a throwback. He’s the music director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert whose easy drawl counters Colbert’s caustic ire. In that gig, he brings smart piano jazz into the homes of millions, but it’s not just in the musical stylings that he’s a throwback. Batiste is a talented musician, an easy-on-the-eyes singer, a stylish dresser, and a fleet-footed dancer. He’s an all-around entertainer, recalling the days when song, dance, and graciousness were in style.

His new album, We Are, is a surprising break, a step into the contemporary, a quick-and-joyous 40 minutes chockablock with feel-good vibes from jump blues to ’70s-styled grooves. There’s tinges of jazz (as there are, say, on Stevie Wonder’s brilliant albums of the ’70s), with tight horns and tighter percussion, but the closest the album comes to real jazz is in the piano-and-strings of “Movement 11,” recalling the fusion of a decade before Batiste was born, over in just two minutes.

It’s also not all throwback. The richly layered production could land some tracks on a mixtape between André 3000 and Drake. Recorded at various studios in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York City, with a host of musicians (including Robert Randolph, Mavis Staples, Trombone Shorty, a marching band, and a children’s choir) and a dozen producers, the album should be a mess, but it’s more like a poppin’ mixtape, hanging together with purpose, or maybe an uplifting USO show for people on sofas, hope for the armies of quarantined.

Batiste is a throwback in the best sense of the word, a sense we need about now.—Kurt Gottschalk


Various Artists: Nuggets, Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968
Rhino R1 2006/081227971113 (2LP). 2021. Lenny Kaye, prod.; Chris Belman, reissue eng.
Performance *****
Sonics **½

Nostalgia for the 1970s is a cultural thing right now, and the original Nuggets anthology, released in 1972, stands as a lasting testament to that decade’s spirit of exploration, rebellion, and honest cheesiness.

At the request of Elektra Records President Jac Holzman, Lenny Kaye, a young music writer and record store clerk (later the guitarist in the Patti Smith Group), assembled two LPs of forgotten one-hit wonders from mid-’60s psychedelic rock. The collection was, in spirit, a descendant of Robert Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The music has been called “garage rock” even though many of the tunes were recorded in major studios and some were released on major labels.

Musically, this collection is superb. It has been a favorite of rock-genre deep divers since it came out. Streamers miss out on such classics (included here) as the cover of “Hey Joe” by the Leaves and “It’s-A-Happening” by the Magic Mushrooms, an acid-on-speed romp released on A&M Records at a time when Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass were the label’s main offering.

The album was cut, for better or worse, from the analog two-track master by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering. Soundwise, this version is worse off for using the old tape. The copy I was sent is somewhat ticky, and there’s a whoosh-rumble throughout. It sounds like 1972.

But lo-fi sound can’t keep this great music down; in fact it may enhance it. The cover art and liner notes are great physical artifacts. A slip-in insert contains Kaye’s and Holzman’s notes for the 2012 anniversary reissue. I’ll probably read the LP notes while listening to the CD.—Tom Fine


Arlo Parks: Collapsed in Sunbeams
Transgressive Records (16/44.1 streaming on Qobuz). 2021. Gianluca Buccellati, prod.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Considering she’s only 20, British singer/songwriter Arlo Parks has a convincing sense of nostalgia. Her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams, considers what has come before, drawing listeners in like trusted friends and redefining soul for her generation.

“Hurt,” the percussive-yet-melodic number that follows the album’s opening poem, encapsulates her range. Her peppering of spoken word into songs owes less to hip-hop than to Leonard Cohen or Johnny Cash. Her sophistication in laying her highly literate poetry over an ever-moving melody manifests her professed love of Nabokov and Ginsberg. Producer Gianluca Buccellati does her no favors with the overly bright-timbred “Too Good,” a nod to house music that renders her voice thin and unsupported, whereas on tracks like “Caroline” and “Just Go,” the sonics complement the music’s richness.

Parks, who publishes under her birth name, Anaïs Marinho, co-wrote the songs with Buccellati. They placed as much care on content as on style—as when, in “Black Dog,” she describes attempts to help a struggling friend. “Green Eyes” sports a smooth, stylish R&B mix with an updated twist: a sultry, synthesized solo where a saxophone would traditionally play. “Hope” manages that rare thing, a catchy chorus that’s also rhythmically interesting.

The two-disc special edition includes crackly “lo-fi lounge” versions of the album’s songs plus a few additional numbers. Those tend to be more daring than the main tracks, full of a raw beauty: “Bags” is an intimate lyric with a wandering melody, while the surprising harmonies of “Moon Song” expose the wise woman within the guitar-strumming girl.—Anne E. Johnson


XIXA: Genesis
Jullian Records (16/44.1/Qobuz). 2021. Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan, prods.; Dominique Maillard, Brian Lopez, Adam Boose, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Back when they started, as Chicha Dust, guitarist-singers Brian Lopez and Gabriel Sullivan’s Tucson-based band mainly played covers of Peruvian cumbia songs. In 2016, they changed their named to XIXA and started writing their own material. Genesis, their second album, establishes the six-per-son group as a successful experiment in blending rock styles and Latin sounds.

Many of their songs have a sacred flavor. The chordal grandeur of “Thine Is the Kingdom” reaches back to ancient rites. “Genesis of Gaea” meanders like the weary steps of a pilgrim. “Night’s Plutonian Shore” likely relies on another type of ecstatic experience.

“We live and breathe this landscape,” Sullivan has said. The southwestern desert heats up “May They Call Us Home,” with snakelike rattles and twanging guitars. Drummer Winston Watson provides wind gusts on cymbals as a host of percussionists decorate the galloping cumbia rhythm. The Spanish lyrics talk of love foretold.

XIXA takes advantage of its lineup of skilled instrumentalists with an imaginative approach to arranging that seamlessly encapsulates multiple styles at once. The lonesome guitar riff opening the last track, “Feast of Ascension,” calls to mind mid-1990s Radiohead, even in the way it develops into a screaming tremolo. Lopez’s low-range vocal growl evokes Tom Waits, while on the eerie chorus—”We sit at the table with all we have feared and lost”—the melody is intensified by being doubled on guitar and backing vocals (the Uummannaq Children’s Choir) rather than diffused into harmonies. That kind of restraint requires a musical courage that not every band possesses.—Anne E. Johnson

Published at Fri, 07 May 2021 17:22:21 +0000