Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Sting - 57th & 9th (2016)

  

Released November 2016

After dabbling in classical music with "Symphonicities" and writing a musical in "The Last Ship", Sting returned to his more recognisable style of laid-back, sometimes slightly jazzy rock/pop with this appealing album. The street intersection of the title refers to the roads he crossed in New York City on his way to the studio he recorded this album in.

TRACK LISTING

1. I Can't Stop Thinking About You
2. 50,000
3. Down, Down, Down
4. One Fine Day
5. Pretty Young Soldier
6. Petrol Head
7. Heading South On The Great North Road
8. If You Can't Love Me
9. Inshallah
10. The Empty Chair

"I Can't Stop Thinking About You" is an upbeat, riffy rocker that wouldn't have sounded out of place on either of The Police's last three albums. "50,000" is even more riffy in its beginning, before it delivers a quiet verse based on Sting's reactions to the passing of Prince and David Bowie. The chorus comes blasting back in, anthemically. It is a most atmospheric, evocative number. "Down, Down, Down" also has a very Police-esque guitar line underpinning it, together with a nostalgic-sounding chorus.

"One Fine Day" is another very typically Sting piece of pop/rock. Solid and muscular. "Pretty Young Soldier" is a strange, homoerotic historically-based song, while the chunky "Petrol Head" has some heavy passages and some echoes of Bruce Springsteen in places. "Heading South On The Great North Road" is an acoustic, folky tale reflecting Sting's North-Eastern roots. "If You Can't Love Me" is slightly messy in its structure, with a paranoid vocal. Maybe it grows on you, but I find its chorus part a bit discordant.

"Inshallah" is a peaceful, seductively rhythmic number and "The Empty Chair" is a Celtic-influenced folk lament to end this short but interesting album. It is a sensitively-constructed work whose sometimes introspective feel demands several listens.

B-

Sting & Shaggy - 44/876 (2018)

  

Released April 2018

This is an odd, surprising coupling from two artists whose halcyon days are behind them (66 year-old Sting and 50 year-old Shaggy). Maybe is is not so much of a shock, though Sting has always liked his reggae, from those credible early Police cuts and Shaggy has also like to extend himself soulfully beyond mere ragga-style toasting. I have come to this album a year late and was sceptical when I first saw it, but upon first listen I was proved wrong. It is quite an endearing offering and well worth a listen. It functions both as a good contemporary reggae album and also a good Sting album. The artists blend pleasingly well together without any awkward self-consciousness. It all sounds quite effortlessly easy.

TRACK LISTING

1. 44/876
2. Morning Is Coming
3. Waiting For The Break Of Day
4. Gotta Get Back My Baby
5. Don't Make Me Wait
6. Just One Lifetime
7. 22nd Street
8. Dreaming In The USA
9. Crooked Tree
10. To Love And Be Loved
11. Sad Trombone
12. Night Shift

"44/876" refers to the international dialling codes for the UK and Jamaica and is a quirky, fun and poppy number that sees both singers performing in their typical style. They merge quite well, although, for me, the bass sound is overpowering (and I love bass), but that is just the way of the contemporary genre. It is actually the only track where this happens, though. "Morning Is Coming" has a less booming bass sound, some archetypally Sting tenor saxophone backing and more great vocals from both of them. "Waiting For The Break Of Day" is an infectious Sting-dominated track that could easily be included on any of his other albums. Shaggy still has a vocal part, though, and it doesn't sound out of place. Personally, I find the sound production ideal on this one, in comparison to "44/876". Lovely, rumbling, melodic bass on it. "Gotta Get Back My Baby" has Shaggy singing more than toasting and he is pretty good, his vocals croaky and soulful.

"Don't Make Me Wait" is a lovely, summery, laid-back groove full of the feel of a Jamaican resort on a hot afternoon. Sting's voice on this is superb, as good as it has sounded for a long time. He sounds quite revitalised by this, coming across as if he is really enjoying himself. "Just One Lifetime" is a ragga cut with typical Shaggy vocals and rhythm. One would expect that Sting's arrival with his "Ten Summoner's Tales" delivery would just not fit in, but it is the opposite, it merges perfectly on another addictive pop/ragga number. "22nd Street" is a crooning, atmospheric, late-night Sting song enhanced by Shaggy. The strength of this album can be summed up in these two songs - the former a ragga song augmented by Sting, the latter a Sting song lifted higher by Shaggy. They do this really well.

"Dreaming In The USA" could, at times, be a Police song in its musical construction, although its lyrics are somewhat cheesy and superficial. It is infuriatingly catchy, however. "Crooked Tree" has Shaggy singing with a Buju Banton growl on a Sting folky, narrative song about a historical criminal's court appearance. It could easily be from his "Last Ship" album. The mood returns to a lively one on the poppy reggae of "To Love And Be Loved", which is another intoxicating, appealing number. "Sad Trombone" is a jazzy, very Sting song and one that would fit easily on to any of his solo albums. "Night Shift" is yet another really good song. This is up there with the best of Sting's solo output, for me. Stick it on a "Best Of Sting" playlist and it certainly would not sound out of place.

This is a highly recommended album, there is not a bad track on it.

B+

Monday, 20 May 2019

Curtis Mayfield - Got To Find A Way (1974)


  

Released November 1974

This was Curtis Mayfield's second album of 1974 and, on this one, even more than on its predecessor, "Sweet Exorcist", he abandons his hard-hitting "message" numbers and replaces them with his take on love. Unsurprisingly, it is both a wise and downtrodden one. Curtis was never really comfortable with pure pop or pure "I love you, girl" sentiments. It is always more like "you used to love me girl, what went wrong?" There is far less funk on here too, more strings and sweet soul sounds than "Superfly"-style gritty funk. For that reason, for me, this is a somewhat unremarkable album and one that just sort of washes over you, although, at certain times, there is nothing wrong with that. The album has been virtually forgotten in Mayfield's canon, it has to be said, however.

TRACK LISTING

1. Love Me (Right In The Pocket)
2. So You Don't Love Me
3. A Prayer
4. Mother's Son
5. Cannot Find A Way
6. Ain't No Love Lost

"Love Me (Right In The Pocket)" is typical Mayfield funk/soul to open the album with, although this time the funk is aimed at a girl Mayfield is after, as opposed to warning about pushermen or future shock. "So You Don't Love Me" is a strings-dominated, lush smoocher of a tune that still has Mayfield's cynical-about-love lyrics, however. "A Prayer" is a smooth, falsetto-driven soul number. Is it time for some copper-bottomed Mayfield funk? Of course it is, and, thankfully, it hasn't been abandoned completely, as "Mother's Son", with its heavy, thumping funk intro proves. It is probably the best cut on the album, full of atmosphere and deep funk. Killer guitar too. The bass/drum/lead guitar interplay near the end is sublime.

"Cannot Find A Way" has a message to it over its slow burning light funk beat, although the vocal is a bit low down in the mix. "Ain't No Love Lost" confirms that the old side two is funkier than side one, but it ends too soon and is is somewhat unremarkable.

Curtis would return in 1975, channelling his "Superfly"/"Roots" socially aware thing once more on the excellent, uncompromising "There's No Place Like America Today". This album trod water just a little. It is not a bad one, by any means, but there are better ones either side of it.

C+

Curtis Mayfield - Sweet Exorcist (1974)


  

Released May 1974

By 1974, you knew what you were going to get from Curtis Mayfield - six or seven tracks on an album, a mixture of orchestrated sweet soul and wah-wah guitar, horn-driven urban funk. The social message was launched in 1970 and it is still strongly there. Unfortunately, the fact that seven similar albums were released between 1970 and 1975 tends to dilute the effect somewhat and some of these albums have ended up slightly overlooked, which is a bit of a pity, as they are all impressive.

This one is a bit more soulful and laid-back and the consciousness is ever so slightly downplayed in favour of a more romantic approach.

TRACK LISTING

1. Ain't Got Time
2. Sweet Exorcist
3. To Be Invisible
4. Power To The People
5. Kung Fu
6. Suffer
7. Make Me Believe In You

"Ain't Got Time" is a superb, deep, funky opener. Full of atmosphere, wah-wah, solid drums and Curtis's sweet vocal dishing out the wise advice. There is a Temptations feel to the track in many ways. Mayfield's voice is just a little deeper than on some of his songs, and it lends the song more gravitas. "Sweet Exorcist" starts as a lush soul number before it morphs into a deep, heavy funk chug on its chorus. "To Be Invisible" is a sensitive, slow burning sweet soul number, one of Mayfield's smoothest numbers for quite a while. As with all his songs, a deep wisdom underpins the lyrics, even on the love songs. Curtis was a serious, deep-thinking man.

"Power To The People" has a slight Staple Singers gospel-influenced feel to it. The interplay between the horns, drums and Mayfield's voice is instinctively effortless. "Kung Fu" is a delicious slice of appetising, tasty funk in the "Superfly" style. "Suffer" is a soul ballad in the O'Jays/Harold Melvin style. There is not much that can be said to analyse material like this, other than it sounds great, facile as that sounds. If you like soul music you will like it, simple as that. "Make Me Believe In You" sees the sublime funk return on another infectious groove.

As I said at the beginning, you know what you're going to get by now. If you like it, these are good albums, all of them, in their own right. You an't go wrong with any of them. If you just want to dabble in Curtis Mayfield, then "Superfly" and "Roots" would be good places to start.

B-

Curtis Mayfield - Back To The World (1973)


  

Released May 1973

After the huge, and somewhat unexpected success of the ultra-funky blaxploitation soundtrack, "Superfly", this album reverted to the heavily-orchestrated, lush, brassy soul sounds of Mayfield's first two solo albums, "Curtis" and "Roots". There is still some solid funk around, but it is less gritty and pounding than on "Superfly", which is a shame, to be honest. Mayfield's message is still one of concern for the contemporary world, both societal and environmental. The album is only seven tracks long, and is decidedly uncommercial. In that respect, it is considered something of a failure, which is unfair, as it contains some credible songs, just no catchy "Superfly"-style numbers. Mayfield was certainly not going to let up on his message, and indeed, didn't until 1977, when he started to dabble in disco. It was hard-hitting, urban, conscious funk/soul all the way.

TRACK LISTING

1. Back In The World
2. Future Shock
3. Right On For The Darkness
4. Future Song
5. If I Only Were A Child Again
6. Can't Say Nothin'
7. Keep On Trippin'

"Back In The World" is a typical pice of smooth, falsetto-dominated lush Mayfield soul, similar to some of the material on "Curtis" and "Roots". "Future Shock" features some delicious funky wah-wah guitar and some punchy horns. It is one of the album's tracks that is most similar to the "Superfly" material. This time though, Mayfield is saying "we got to stop the man from messing up the land...". Inspired by Alvin Toffler's 1970 book, the song contains warnings for more than just drug dealers, but for the whole world. "Right On For The Darkness" is a deep, industrial strength funky chugger, lightened only by some sweeping strings. Personally, I would have preferred it without the strings, just keeping the funk, which is heavy.

"Future Song" is  religious-themed, laid-back slice of sweet soul that a probably a minute or so too long. The tempo is upped, however, with the "Move on Up"-ish fast groove of "If I Only Were A Child Again". The horns and the percussion rhythm are great on this one. "Can't Say Nothin'" is a wonderful helping of brassy funk, with an almost swamp-blues style riff underpinning it. Mayfield's vocals are only incidental on what is essentially an excellent instrumental. A few more vocals arrive at the end, however, but it is still largely a musical outing. "Keep On Trippin'" ends the album with a melodic and soulful number that sees Mayfield's falsetto hitting those top notes once more. There is a hint of Motown in the song's verse structure.

While this is not a Curtis Mayfield essential, it is certainly not inessential either, if that doesn't sound too silly. It is not a poppy album, but, as with all his early/mid seventies offerings, it has serious credibility.

B-

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Curtis Mayfield - Superfly (1972)

  

Released July 1972

This is a ground-breaking "blaxploitation" movie soundtrack album that, along with Isaac Hayes' "Shaft" is up there as one of the finest representatives of its genre. While "Shaft" was a musical masterpiece of an album, this one contained more full songs and stands up as a straight-up soul album in its own right, irrespective of being a movie soundtrack. The theme was one of social deprivation leading to drug abuse and tells stories from the perspective of both the users and the dealers. It builds on issues dealt with by The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth, Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye and it goes even further. There is a convincing argument that this is the best "aware" soul album of the early seventies, if not of all time. Also, although both "Curtis" and "Roots" were great albums, this really takes some beating. The sound on it is full, deep and funky, with less string orchestration than on those two albums. It is certainly Mayfield's grittiest, funkiest offering.

TRACK LISTING

1. Little Child Runnin' Wild
2. Pusherman
3. Freddie's Dead
4. Junkie Chase
5. Give Me Your Love
6. Eddie You Should Know Better
7. No Thing On Me
8. Think
9. Superfly

"Little Child Runnin' Wild" is a hard-hitting, funky percussion-driven magnificent opener, with apparent similarities, lyrically, it would seem, to The Temptations' "Runaway Child Running Wild". However, Mayfield's song is autobiographical (for the movie's character), speaking of his deprived upbringing, whereas The Temptations' one is a narrative take of a young child on the streets. "Pusherman" is a sublime, beautiful piece of rhythmic, bassy funk with Mayfield's iconic falsetto giving us an uncompromising first-person description of the life of a "pusherman", hustling drugs on the streets - himself a "victim of ghetto demands". Mayfield takes a depressingly realistic view of things and, to an extent, the wonderful, atmospheric funk of the song's melody almost glorifies the pusherman, simply because the music describing him is so damn good. Mayfield views the issues from the point of view of the criminal which was a unique thing to do in 1972. Socially aware material had only been around in soul music for four years or so and for Mayfield to sing and compose from this perspective was certainly adventurous and risk-taking in the extreme. The balance is restored, however, in the sad tale that is "Freddie's Dead", about a life snuffed out but not by drugs, but run over by a car. It is all linked though, but you get the impression that the song just shrugs its shoulders at another death on these mean streets. The music is once again excellent - funky flute, shuffling drums, sweeping strings and "chicka-chicka" wah-wah guitars.

After these three stonking openers, we are reminded that this is a movie soundtrack album with the brief funky wah-wah and horns groove of "Junkie Chase". Very Blaxploitation. "Give Me Your Love"  once more features some totally delicious instrumentation. Man, those wah-wahs. The sound is so good as well. Fantastically clear yet deep and warm too. Mayfield's vocal takes a while to arrive and because the music is so good, you don't notice. When it comes it just makes it all even better.

"Eddie You Should Know Better" is a short, soulful song clearly written for the movie. It is excellent, however, full of atmosphere. "No Thing On Me" is a sumptuous piece of funky soul with Mayfield's character in a positive mood, claiming now to lead a clean life - "you don't have to be no junkie....my life's a natural high..." is the admirable sentiment - "sure is funky, I ain't no junkie...". Things seem to be looking up, thankfully. A bit of redemption. That positivity continues in the beautiful instrumental groove of "Think". This features some lovely saxophone near the end.

Finally, we get the barnstorming brassy funk of the title track, a true blaxploitation classic, that appears on every compilation of the genre. Although the album is only thirty-seven minutes in length, every second is dripping with atmosphere. Truly one of the best soul/funk albums of all time. Essential.

A-

Queen - Queen Rock Montreal (1981)


  

Recorded live in Montreal, November 1981

This was a Queen live album from the period that saw them at the height of their irrelevance (comparatively), for they were still able to sell out an arena/stadium. However, the punk, new wave, post punk, two tone and new romantic genres had left the band as a bit of a cultural beached whale. Their 1984-86 renaissance was yet to take place and the set of this live album was the bridge between 1979's "Live Killers" and the summer of 1982's "Queen On Fire". Where it is preferable, for me, over "Queen On Fire" is that there are none of the clumsy funk offerings from "Hot Space" that are in that set. The 1974 Rainbow concerts and the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon one are still the best live Queen albums, in my opinion. That was my favourite phase of the career.

Of course, Queen always played live with a vigour and vibrancy that made them an irresistible live act and this is certainly true here, although what is odd about this one is that the Canadian crowd are not familiar with a lot of the material, so songs are introduced to relatively sparse cheers, not the rapturous receptions they got in Milton Keynes the following summer, for example. It means that although the sound quality and performance is very good, a little of the electric live atmosphere is lost. That sound quality, however, is eminently superior to both "Live Killers" and "Live At Wembley". One low point of the album, it has to be said, is when "Keep Yourself Alive" morphs into the dreadful "drum and tympani solo" followed by the messy "guitar solo". Queen should have left the worst of the seventies back in the seventies. There were always messy parts in Queen shows, the early set "medley" was another infuriating one. The sets often lacked continuity because of this. This one is no different.

TRACK LISTING

1. We Will Rock You (Fast Version)
2. Let Me Entertain You
3. Play The Game
4. Somebody To Love
5. Killer Queen
6. I'm In Love With My Car
7. Get Down, Make Love
8. Save Me
9. Now I'm Here
10. Dragon Attack
11. Now I'm Here (Reprise)
12. Love Of My Life
13. Under Pressure
14. Keep Yourself Alive
15. Flash
16. The Hero
17. Crazy Little Thing Called Love
18. Jailhouse Rock
19. Bohemian Rhapsody
20. Tie Your Mother Down
21. Another One Bites The Dust
22. Sheer Heart Attack
23. We Will Rock You
24. We Are The Champions
25. God Save The Queen

B-