NEW RELEASES, 6/22: KAMASI WASHINGTON, DAWES, NINE INCH NAILS, DAVE KOZ, T. HARDY MORRIS and more!

KAMASI WASHINGTON, Heaven & Earth (2xCD/4xLP)
Ten years ago, British saxophone legend Courtney Pine painted a sobering picture of life as a modern British jazz musician in an interview with the Guardian. For all the study involved in becoming one, most jazz musicians had no hope of making a living, unless they were one of the clean-cut vocalists content to ring-a-ding-ding their way through the great American songbook to the delight of Michael Parkinson: you could fully expect your weekends to be spent not exploring the outer limits of improvisation, but playing in a wedding band to make ends meet. “An incredible sale in this day and age is 3,000 copies,” he lamented. Here was evidence of how modern jazz lurks on the very fringes of mainstream public consciousness. You could fill a book with ways jazz has influenced rock and pop – from post-punk’s skronk to the samples of hip-hop and trip-hop – but apart from the aforementioned ring-a-ding-dingers, no serious jazz musician has really crossed over to huge mainstream success since the 1970s, the era of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, of the super-smooth George Benson and Grover Washington Jr, and of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert wafting around in the background of dinner parties. All of which makes Kamasi Washington faintly extraordinary. His last London gig was not at the intimate Servant Jazz Quarters, but the Roundhouse, a venue at which the audience was clearly not comprised of longstanding jazz buffs. He records for Young Turks – home of the xx, FKA twigs and Sampha – and is reviewed in the kind of places jazz artists seldom get a mention. It all seems to have been achieved without pragmatic compromise. The record that catapulted him from self-releasing CDs in amateurish home-made sleeves, 2015’s The Epic, was a three-hour-long concept album. Various theories exist as to how Washington has pulled this off, all of which are supported by The Epic’s full-length follow-up, Heaven and Earth (by Washington’s standards, this is a work of economy, clocking in at a mere two-and-a-half hours). One is that the time is simply right: his guest appearances on Kendrick Lamar’s epochal To Pimp a Butterfly didn’t merely elevate his profile, they established him as “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter”, in a grand tradition of jazz as black protest. Heaven and Earth frequently appears to be a furious state-of-America address. You can hear portentous anger in everything from its track titles – Street Fighter Mas, Song for the Fallen – to its astonishing opening cover of the theme from 1972 kung fu movie Fists of Fury, which arrives not merely extended to 10 minutes, but with additional lyrics: “Our time as victims is over / We will no longer ask for justice.” Washington’s sound tends to the maximalist – he is not a man afraid of breaking out the orchestra and choir – but on the album’s closing tracks Show Us the Way and Will You Sing it doesn’t feel dense so much as tumultuous, the former heaving and yawing behind a high-drama choral arrangement, the latter calmer, but with its ostensibly positive message of empowerment and change underscored by noticeable darkness. It sounds more like storm clouds gathering than sunlight breaking through. Another theory is that his sound is audibly rooted in the kind of old jazz texts that non-jazz buffs tend to recognise, the kind of thing that gets collected on hipster-friendly compilations released by Soul Jazz and Strut: the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra’s big band Afrofuturism, the political funk of Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, the synth experiments of Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul. They’re all present here, further smoothed with ample references to early 70s soul and funk, not least the ambitious, orchestrated psychedelia of Rotary Connection. But what’s striking about Heaven and Earth is how expansive and ever-changing it is, its musical focus shifting constantly from lavish grandiosity to perspiration-soaked Latin rhythms to concentrated improvisation, from the edge of chaos to the lushly melodic – sometimes within the same track, as on The Invincible Youth. It never lingers in one place long enough for its running time to seem gruelling. Instead, Heaven and Earth feels writhingly alive and passionate, angrily of the moment but inclusive. If describing Heaven and Earth as “jazz for people who don’t like jazz” sounds pejorative, it isn’t meant to be. Rather, it’s simply to indicate that on Heaven and Earth, Washington continues to explore a sweet spot between artistry and approachability. Whether his success will lead audiences to further explore music that usually exists on the fringes is an interesting question. What is more certain is the quality and accessibility of his own music.

DAWES, Passwords (CD/LP)
California band Dawes dip their observant takes on our days of angst deep into a tub of ‘70s folk and soft rock, turning “Passwords,” their sixth album, into a soothing, sugar-coated collection with a bittersweet lyrical aftertaste. Led by singer-guitarist-songwriter Taylor Goldsmith, the 30-somethings in Dawes must know the catalog of authoritative artists of the era like The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Stephen Bishop to a tee, though they often add a twist or two of their own. The power chords of opener “Living In the Future” and a scarily intense guitar solo are a good match for the lyrics, which read like a directory of modern challenges, from keeping your passwords safe and remembering them to feelings of living on the edge and anticipating being pushed off. “Feed the Fire” offers electric sitar and a melody like Stevie Nicks fronting Hall & Oates, while “Crack the Case” wishes for a lasting armistice — “It’s really hard to hate anyone/When you know what they’ve lived through.” “I Can’t Love” buries the lead (”you any more … than I do right now”) and “Mistakes We Should Have Made” is an energetic burst into regret with vocal assistance from Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from indie pop band Lucius. There’s some late ‘80s Joni Mitchell in “Time Flies Either Way,” which ends the album with affecting piano playing from Lee Pardini and acts as a possible sequel to “Telescope,” about a boy whose life never seemingly recovers from his dad’s departure. Or maybe it still can. Dawes achieve a uniform veneer on “Passwords,” translucent coats of sound spread over situations and stories well worth listening to.

T. HARDY MORRIS, Dude The Obscure (CD/LP)
Considering the weight of the ideas T. Hardy Morris is exploring on his new record Dude, The Obscure, it feels like his airiest work yet. Following 2015’s twangy Drownin’ On a Mountaintop, Morris is shedding some skin and getting at something a little rawer and more heartfelt. Dude, The Obscure soars and floats, at once dreamy and heady, even when Morris is rocking out (as he is prone to do). Questioning his place in the world, and striving to stay present in an ever more chaotic world, Morris digs deep on this album and seems to have found his own bliss in the process. A cheeky play on famed English author Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude The Obscure, Dude, The Obscure sounds like a stoner’s spaced out tagline. And in many ways, the album gives us that vibe of getting so deep in your head to where it’s murky and dark, until you ultimately come out the other end feeling more like yourself. On “The Night Everything Changed,” Morris gets nostalgic for good times on the road and feeling connected to others by the memories we share. Recounting faraway cities, missed planes, and wasted money, Morris weaves a sweet, sublime thread made even more magical with the glide of steel guitar. “When the Record Skips” is a dark, heart-thumping ode to the idea of a legacy and what gets left behind. And though “Be” opens the record, it feels most like a culmination for Morris. It’s the album’s stunning peak, and a moment of reckoning as Morris strips away all the clutter that keeps him from moving forward. Hailing from the artsy Southern enclave of Athens, Georgia, Morris hasn’t lost his twang, but this time around, his sound is elevated and meditative. He creates a big sound on Dude, The Obscure, with swooning arrangements that live somewhere above us and that compel us to look upward and reach for them to try and catch just a little bit of that sweet enlightenment within them

NINE INCH NAILS, Bad Witch (CD/LP)
Mutation as a theme has always rippled through Trent Reznor’s songwriting, and his most recent work finds him shifting emphasis from personal to social forms of transformation and decay. The Nine Inch Nails frontman may have once fixated on frenzied individual self-destruction, but with the band’s ninth album, Bad Witch—a six-track, 30-minute release that’s technically part of a recent trilogy of EPs—he wrestles with his dismay over being part of a depraved culture that’s showing signs of impending collapse. While 2016’s Not the Actual Events explores dissociative identities and 2017’s Add Violence brims with paranoia about our increasingly simulated reality, Bad Witch moves past such insular anxieties and more directly acknowledges that society’s chaos is the result of our collective hubris. Amid a kinetic drum loop and flurries of discordant electronic effects, “Ahead of Ourselves” asserts that civilization has devolved into a “celebration of ignorance.” Reznor blames the exponential advancement of technology for magnifying humanity’s basest impulses. The music mirrors an unwieldy, world-gone-mad atmosphere, as a chugging beat lurches in fits and starts and Reznor’s vocals oscillate from frayed, modulated warbles to salvos of abrasive distortion. Elsewhere, on the fuzzed-out “Shit Mirror,” Reznor internalizes America’s “new face,” one that he can barely recognize and that feeds on “loathing, hate, and fear,” his vocals fluctuating from nearly indecipherable, distortion-laden bursts to breathy whispers. He considers this contorted reflection with a shrug, resigned that the mutation staring back at him “feels all right.” Bad Witch‘s emphasis on disorientation and dissonance is most pronounced on “God Break Down the Door,” as a cyclone of swirling electronic loops, syncopated drums, and saxophone is juxtaposed by a calm, sonorous croon heavily indebted to David Bowie. Reznor belabors that vocal approach on “Over and Out,” a moody, sub-bass-driven track in which he retreats into well-worn sentiments about repeating the same mistakes as time flies by. Reznor conveys a bleaker and more visceral sense of desperation on the album’s two instrumental tracks. The shape-shifting textures and cacophonous horns of “Play the Goddamned Part” echo the unsettling disorder of our modern discourse, while the Lynchian otherworldliness of the haunting and cinematic “I’m Not from This World” thrums with an ineffable—yet relatable—sense of unease that drives home Bad Witch‘s exploration of confronting a once familiar environment rendered alien and grotesque.

PANIC AT THE DISCO, Pray For The Wicked (CD/LP)

RECORD COMPANY, All Of This Life (CD/LP)

GANG GANG DANCE, Kazuashita (CD/LP)

DAVE KOZ, Summer Horns II (CD)

 

COMING SOON:

FLORENCE & THE MACHINE, High As Hope (6/29)

GORILLAZ, Now Now (6/29)

JIM JAMES, Uniform Distortion (6/29)

 

And don’t forget these STILL-NEW platters that matter!

ARTHUR BUCK, Arthur Buck (CD/LP)
Former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and often-experimental singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur have teamed up for an album that was written mostly in a few days after a chance encounter in Mexico and recorded nearly as quickly. Fresh and spontaneous, it’s also filled with precious sonic details, like little flashes sparking the songs. Unsurprisingly, Buck’s layers of acoustic guitars and bright and brief solos provide numerous R.E.M. textures and the tunes bear plenty more traces of the 1985-1995 pop decade. Arthur’s role and contributions are just as significant. As he often does on his own albums, he plays most of the instruments, wrote the lyrics and sings the songs. “American Century” sounds like “Pop Life”-era Prince, but sung by Axl Rose in his low register, while “If You Wake Up in Time” echoes the Talking Heads. David Bowie’s spirit infuses “Wide Awake in November” and the brief “Summertime” could be a David Sylvian/Robert Fripp interlude. Opener “I Am The Moment” would have fit seamlessly on one of the last R.E.M. albums, while closer “Can’t Make It Without You,” with its haunting, dolphin’s cry-like faux string section, could be from “New Adventures in Hi-Fi.” Lyrically — in line with the urgency of their creation — there is some topical material, like “American Century” and maybe “Wide Awake in November,” but the dominant mood seems to be about making the most of one’s opportunities amid our frazzled lives at hyperspeed. Buck is a known and treasured commodity but if you’re not familiar with Arthur’s albums, search out gems like “The Family” and you’ll hear just how much he brings to the collaboration.

BUDDY GUY, The Blues Is Alive & Well (CD/LP)
Right from the start, Buddy Guy makes it clear that he is not resting on his legendary status, firing off taut licks on his BG Blonde Stratocaster as he delivers a doleful plea on mortality, looking back over eighty-one years of life on “A Few Good Years”. His gripping vocal serves as a reminder that Guy has always been an outstanding singer, a fact he reinforces repeatedly throughout the disc. The following track, “Guilty As Charged,” is an energetic shuffle with the singer battling to resist the charms of a former flame. Both tracks feature producer Tom Hambridge on drums, Rob McNelley on rhythm guitar, Kevin MdKendree on keyboards and Willie Weeks on bass. “Cognac” is a fitting celebration of Guy’s beverage of choice, elevated by the presence of guests Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, the three guitarists trading solos while Guy sends a shout-out to an old friend, singing,”If the late Muddy Waters was here drinking with us, that bottle would be ten times gone!”. James Bay, a platinum-selling English singer & songwriter, joins Guy for a soothing duet on “Blue No More,” complete with B.B.King-style guitar over a slow-rolling groove on a track written by Hambridge and country star Jamey Johnson. Tommy MacDonald steps in on bass. Things take on a harder edge on “Bad Day,” with Guy issuing a clear warning that he best be left alone, as he is in no mood to deal with his woman or the local police. Emil Justian, who once fronted Matt “Guitar” Murphy’s band, contributes some rudimentary harp blowing. The final guest is Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger, blowing some telling harmonica fills on a slow blues gem, “You Did The Crime,” as Guy doubles up on a Martin BG acoustic and Guild Starfire 4S guitars while McNelley uses slide for his contribution. The Muscle Shoals Horns – Charles Rose on trombone & horn arrangements, Steve Herrman on trumpet, Doug Moffet on tenor sax, and Jim Hoke on baritone sax – make their presence felt on three tracks. On the title track, co-written by Hambridge and Gary Nicholson, Guy relates his heart-wrenching reactions to an unfaithful woman, still trying to break free of her icy grip. The horns seamlessly meld with Guy’s voice as he bares his soul while utilizing a guitar lick borrowed from Otis Rush. “Old Fashioned” finds the section hitting hard with plenty of swagger to support Guy’s blistering solo, pushed by McKendree on the Hammond B3 organ. Guy waxes nostalgic one more time on “End Of The Line,” singing about having one foot in the grave. But the brawny horn embellishments and another fiery guitar interlude certainly tell a different tale. Another highlight is a rousing cover of the Sonny Boy Williamson classic, “Nine Below Zero,” with Guy peeling back the years with a vibrant, emotionally-charged performance on vocal and guitar. “Ooh Daddy” is a boogie that percolates along with fine guitar interplay between Guy and McNelley. The ghost of John Lee Hooker creeps into “Somebody Up There,” a stark, passionate testament to the spirits watching over us. “Whiskey For Sale” takes a funky approach, benefiting from Regina & Ann McCrary on backing vocals, but generic lyrics prevent the track from taking off. Guy takes one more look at mortality on “When My Day Comes,” envisioning the moment when he will lay down one last time under the weeping willow tree.  At the close of the disc, Guy delivers a salacious snippet, entitled “Milking Muther For You,” leaving no doubt that he is still a simple, down-home blues man at heart. Throughout his career, Buddy Guy has been known for his guitar prowess. Often times his skill as a singer would slide by with little notice. On this release, he consistently reaches into the emotional depths, often with bone-chilling intensity, conveying hard-earned lessons on life and the people you meet along the way. Even the guests, for all of their combined star power, get regulated to the background by the sheer raw energy that Guy taps into on every track. This may not rise to the level of his classic recordings for Chess Records. But this is Buddy Guy doing his best to remind us what the blues is all about. Mission accomplished!

GASLIGHT ANTHEM, 59 Sound Sessions (CD)
After a few years of slumber, The Gaslight Anthem have surfaced from their hiatus, namely to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their seminal album The ’59 Sound. My knowledge of this band is minimal, I’ve been aware of them for a few years but it wasn’t until Brian Fallon’s Sleepwalkers album earlier this year opened my ears and I delved into his music and The Gaslight Anthem’s. Essentially, The ’59 Sound was a slow burner for me but right now, it’s on regular rotation (a story for another day). To celebrate their return, The Gaslight Anthem have delved into the vault and given the world The ’59 Sound Sessions. Recorded in a day in their native New Jersey, many of the songs found here would make their way onto the full-realised album. Naturally, everything on this is much more raw than the polished final versions. It’s rough around the edges, Fallon’s vocals are more gravelly and there’s a cynical tint to them where the final versions held more optimism. Half the songs which feature on the full album are here but there’s a couple of notable additions, namely the cover of Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”. It’s a meaty rendition and as dark as the original and in this basic format, is a weighty beast. To have beefed it up to the “full” version, the soul of the song would have been lost. Elsewhere, “Our Father’s Sons” features country twangings and has a chain gang lament and feel to it before the outro features the opening notes of “Great Expectations” (which is still present in this demo form). Lyrically, it thematically fits the album but its presence wouldn’t have enhanced The ’59 Sound. Meanwhile, “Pleaceholder” has a pop punk vibe to it before it would transform into “Old White Lincoln” and again, the latter is the better version. As for the songs which made it onto the final version, it’s clear to anyone who’s spent time with the album what the songs became. The germs and ideas are all there and present, if a little rough and ready. Songs like “High Lonesome” and “Great Expectations” had more urgency to them in this form and more of a punk edge to them before they were curtailed. “Film Noir” also features a filthy, pulsing bass line in it with less guitar. The title track is the only track to be as close to how it would feature on the album, there’s very little been changed and all the little quirks and soundscapes feature. Clearly, when they went into the studio to demo the songs, it was one that was worked on the most and whilst the other songs were by no means neglected, obviously the band knew they had something special on their hands. The ’59 Sound Sessions is perfect for those die-hard fans of The Gaslight Anthem. It’ll whet the appetite of those waiting to see them when they return to the UK next month when they play The ’59 Sound in its entirety. The band made the right choices in which songs to drop from the full release but to get an insight into how these songs developed is a delight, even if from a curiosity standpoint.

JOHNNY MARR, Call The Comet (CD)

GIN BLOSSOMS, Mixed Reality (CD)

CHRISTINA AGUILERA, Liberation (CD)

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