It's time for Tuesday Reviewsday, our weekly new music segment. Joining A Martinez in the studio this week are music journalists Chris Martins and Steve Hochman.
Artist: Mary J. Blige
Album: "The London Sessions"
Songs: "Right Now," "Whole Damn Year"
Notes: This, to me, is a story of artistic reinvention and aging very, very gracefully. We all know Mary J. Blige. This is her 13th album. She's got nine Grammys and is universally recognized as "The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul." And the past couple of years have been rife with nostalgia for the early-'90s R&B sound that she helped create and define. So, obviously she decided to just recycle old sounding material to cash in on this trend. Right? Wrong.
Mary moved to England to make this album, which is why it's called "The London Sessions." She worked with all of these incredible talents: house-pop duo Disclosure, soul sensation Sam Smith, Adele songwriter Eg White, Emile Sandé, and a bunch of others. There's a real scene over there, and she managed to plug right in, which is quite feat.
As I see it, any established, maybe past-prime artist can have her label source a few singles from whoever's hot at the moment. All it takes is money, and an email account to transfer the files. It's another thing to recognize quality amidst hype, and another still to fly across the ocean and embed yourself in someone else's world. And to find genuine chemistry there at the other side of that trip?
This album shouldn't sound as good, and as organic, as it does. And you can also hear the serious emotional depth and vocal charisma of Ms. Blige on songs like "Whole Damn Year." She's been through a lot over the years - addiction, depression, and abusive relationships. It's clear this London crew gave her a safe space to emote from.
Artist: Tētēma (Mike Patton, Anthony Pateras)
Songs: "Tenz," "Irundi"
Notes: What we have here is nothing less than an attempt to "create a sonic universe from scratch." That sounds a bit lofty, but consider the constituent parts. Tētēma is Mike Patton - the most gifted and unhinged vocalist of our time - and Anthony Pateras, a genius composer, pianist, synth wizard who's been holding down the avant-garde in Australia. They also wrangle a 12-piece of classical mavericks to do their bidding.
Even if you don't recognize Patton's name, there's about zero percent chance you haven't heard that voice. He was, and is, the singer of "Faith No More," who are working on a new album.
"Geocidal" was recorded across three continents. Pateras started in France, where he locked himself in a remote convent for 10 days in order to figure out the framework. He then returned to Australia for over a year of orchestration. Finally, he visited Mike in S.F. and voila!
Conceptually, the album "investigates the murder of place" in light of the digital interconnectedness of everything. Does physical location matter? Why leave home? Is there something distinct out there, or is it all a big general culture mush? Not sure this'll answer the question, but to get an idea of what they're getting at, check out the track "Irundi."
Artist: Whitey Morgan and the 78s
Album: "Born, Raised & Live From Flint"
Songs: "Buick City Blues," "I Ain't Drunk"
Notes: We're approaching 40 years since the release of Wanted: The Outlaws, the compilation of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessie Colter and Tompall Glaser tracks that marked the official breakthrough of the outlaw country movement to the mainstream. Well, that edgy, rough-edged, plain-spoken sound is long gone from the country mainstream now, whatever the country mainstream is now. "Bro-country?" Kinda don't even want to know. Regardless, the Outlaw movement is experiencing a welcome new resurgence, with such artists as Sturgill Simpson bringing earnest, rowdy honky-tonk music up to date. The rowdy honky-tonk in question here was the Machine Shop in Flint, Michigan, from which Whitey Morgan and his band the 78s hail. The album opens with "Buick City Blues," an ode to his beleaguered town and the industry that made and broke it.
But his viewpoint is nationwide, and spans generations, tapping into the same spirit that's being heard in many places. The album's being released by Chicago's Bloodshot Records label, a long-time haven for gutty roots and country acts. Here in L.A. there's the regular Grand Ol' Echo events showcasing the latest generation of smart, frills-free California country. The titles alone tell much of the tale here, striking out from the "Buick City" working folks ode. And you might catch a theme with "Turn Up the Bottle," "Another Round" and then, implausibly, "I Ain't Drunk" - though in the next phrase he readily admits "I've Just Been Drinking."
You say tomato, I say another Bloody Mary, bartender. There are also several heroes honored, with versions of Johnny Paycheck's "Cocaine Train," Johnny Cash's "Bad News" and Dale Watson's tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, "Where Do You Want It." Only slightly off that road is Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" as Waylon might have done it, with that alternating bass pattern and steel guitar. The album closes with a cover of Hank Williams' "Mind Your Own Business." Waylon, in one of his '70s signature songs, stared down the Nashville country assembly line and shook his head, singing, "I don't think Hank done it this way." Whitey Morgan isn't even paying any mind to Nashville. Hank and Waylon would approve.
Album: "Coal, Again!"
Songs: "Good King What's His Name," "Little Drummer Boychick"
Notes: Raise your hand if you're already sick of holiday music. Yup. Well, here's a nice variation, some familiar tunes done in the traditional styles of the country of TriBeCaStan. Oh, there's no such country as TriBeCaStan? Of course not. It's a band from, as the name indicates, the TriBeCa slice of Lower Manhattan, which arguably is all countries, or at least has representations from multiple cultures among its culture-conscious populace.
The sprawling band, founded and led by multi-instrumentalist/multi-culturalists John Kruth and Jeff Greene, has made a name for a truly global reach, weaving together bits and pieces of music from all over, with neither the dilettantishness nor New Age-i-ness that infects many such attempts. It also brings in a lot of humor, where solemnity is often the case. Hence when it came to a holiday collection, it wasn't going to be just another in the ho-ho-ho-hum routine. Here we get "O Little Town of Bethlemayhem," jamming together "O Tannenbaum" and "Little Town of Bethlehem" with ska beats and steel drums.
"Silver Bells" transitions from Hawaiian-ized country to trippy Klezmer. "Little Drummer Boychick" rides Claire Daly's deep, deep baritone sax into "Peter Gunn" territory, if Gunn was on a case that took him along the Silk Road, that is. And then there's "Good King What's His Name," in which Javanese gamelan meets Central African flutes. "Carol of the Bells," it turns out, is already an adaptation of a Ukrainian folk tun, "Schedryk," so of course the TriBeCaStanis drag it in directions they say draw on free jazz iconoclast Albert Ayler and prog masters King Crimson. Sure, why not?
Arguably, the most impressive accomplishment is also the most serious, the closing 9-minute fantasy on "Jingle Bells," an ethereally wintry trip through many sounds and styles that will just, uh, sleigh you.