Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Week 6

The TakeOver by Zion I

Sorry I'm a little late this week! The weekend's plate got a little full thanks to some extra gigs! (I'm postponing another album I've been listening to for next week so here's one to tide you over.)

Zion I is a rap duo from Oakland, CA that's been tearing it up West Coast style for a little more than a decade. They're comprised of DJ Amplive and MC Zumbi (formerly known as Zion). As far as what sub-genre of hip hop they could be, well it's hard to pin one down. Underground, backpack, political, hyphy, could all be thrown around, but certainly wouldn't nail the group down completely. 

The TakeOver is their sixth full-length album, their first on the Gold Dust Media label, and boy is it a doozy. 

I'll be straight up, I'm a huge fan of true hip hop - as in hip hop that is true to the genre's roots, not the bubble gum/dance/'hey we made this song on a Macbook while we were waiting for our lattes at Starbucks' kind. Luckily for me, this certainly qualifies. The TakeOver was the group's attempt to push past their political rap label into a more radio-friendly, feel-good, but still intelligent album. I'd say mission accomplished.

After a politically-charged introductory quote, the album's first track "Geek to the Beat" lets listeners know that they're in for something a little out of the ordinary for this group. This track samples live tribal drums under some equally tribal vocals before Zumbi goes in with a very Lil Wayne rhyme. But don't let the lazy tone fool you. This one is full of social-conscious material wrapped up in a club-ready package. Two songs later, we get a track with a similar vibe: DJ DJ. This time however, think more house a la Bambaataa, less dance club.

The track in between, "Antenna" is one that once again disguises some honest rhyming (about long-distance relationships?) up in a very Dark Twisted Fantasy wrapping. 

There are two tracks entitled "Caged Bird" on the album, one of which comes next. Amplive shows off his versatility through both tracks, as are built on the same beat, but through different synths and harmonies he creates two totally different atmospheres. The first joint features Brother Ali, who along with Zumbi, provide hope for a better situation to the listener,  " Everyday that you hold me in bars is another day I can't teach your soul to soar/Here both of us are, link to this song - and when you hear a caged bird, sing along (Ali)," Pt. 2 is more somber, painting pictures of what its like to be in the proverbial cage, "We hustle and we grind/Precision at all times/Programmed for the prison/So we used to the dying (Zumbi)".

"Radio" is the eighth track and this one capitalizes on the 'boom, clap-clap' sound of Outkast's 'Hey Ya.' Definitely a feel-good song about diggin' on some new music with some new equipment. 

After a short little instrumental mash called "Gumbo," a southern rap inspired track called "Country-Baked Yams" is up. If there is one track on the album that I'd have to call a flop, this is it. Seems to be one of two joints on this album that's about a woman, and in true hip hop style, tells you plenty about her appearance and not much else. A less flop-ish track that comes a few tracks later with similar content is Peppermint Patty. The only reason I like this one better is because the beat is pretty dope.

Next up is a minimally-produced track with a nice blend of real and synthesized instruments called "Coastin'." This one has a very chill vibe about taking it easy and rolling with the punches. In my opinion, this one fills out the group's West Coast obligation. 

If "Coastin'" is the album's West Coast sound, then the next track "Juicy Juice" is the obligatory braggadocious track. Lots of self-hype here.

The penultimate track, "Bring in the Light" is probably the most politically-charged song, and in that way, the most similar to past Zion ventures. Rhymes like "imitate what you want, who's controlling your fate/they be pumping the hate, just for the media's sake" and "ignorance is the drug that powers the thug/I'm on the grind trying to show that there's love love love" blend some non-specific commentary on the state of society. Zion I in a nutshell.

The TakeOver's last track is another extremely thoughtfully-crafted production top to bottom. The instrumental portion is a killer blend of lounge, jazz fusion, and tribal elements. This one brings us back from the almost gloomy tone of "Bring in the Light" to a more optimistic outlook on our future. Very thoughtful way to wrap up the album.

In conclusion, I'm certainly a fan of this album, although I should mention something: I don't think it's a homerun. The versatility and variety featured on this disc is both its triumph and its downfall. I don't think there's a unifying thread to tie it all together, nor is there a single track that blows the others away. Everything is pretty good, but each track is so different from the previous that I don't think I'd believe they're all from the same album if I was listening to them blindly. 

If you're interested in a fresh sound that's not too political but still has more content than whatever is on the radio currently, look no further then Zion I's The TakeOver.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Week 5

Fun Machine by Lake Street Dive

Ready to 'Dive' into some Fun Machine?! ('Twas too easy).

So if I had to describe my favorite discovery of 2014 in a few words I'd say "jazzy soul with a sprinklin' of pop." Lake Street Dive (henceforth referred to as such since LSD isn't exactly a great abbreviation...) is a quartet out of Boston made up of New England Conservatory students. They've been playing together for almost a decade, but only recently, thanks to some YouTube press, have been getting some serious exposure. 

Minneapolis native and trumpeter Mike Olson assembled the fantastic four in 2005. The rest of the group consists of Nashvillean lead singer Rachael Price, Iowan upright bassist Bridget Kearney, and fresh-from-Philly drummer Mike Calabrese. The group's supa-fresh sound has come from years of dive-bar experience (hence the name). The upright gives the whole group a very jazzy, lo-fi sound while the trumpet goes from background horn to improviser to harmonizer effortlessly. Calaprese has a great feel that sounds like it belongs on a '60s soul record and I don't know what to say about Rachael Price's voice. Ella Fitzgerald and Lana Del Ray and Norah Jones combined would probably come close to describe her sound. I should also mention that the entire group sings on most tracks and they are spot on in their harmonies. 

With regards to this album, I stumbled onto it after their well-known cover of The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" came on my iTunes radio Snarky Puppy channel. "I Want You Back" is one of my favorite songs ever and this is by far the best cover I've ever heard. The YouTube video below helped put the group on the map, channeling almost 1.5 million views in a few months.

The rest of the six-track EP is made up of four more covers (more on these in a second) and an original track entitled "Clear a Space." The original song would be plenty to get me hooked in this bands sound. From the funky harmonic-ridden upright line to the '70s funk-inspired trumpet backgrounds to the three part harmonies, this song is a great example of what this group is about. THis is good music that is equally rich in sound as it is in content. If you played this song on a vinyl album for me, I'd find it pretty hard to believe that this group 1. hasn't reached stardom, and 2. isn't decades older than they are. 

The remaining covers are of Hall & Oates "Rich Girl," McCartney and Wings' "Let Me Roll It," "This Magic Moment" made famous by the Drifters and a funkified cover of George Michael's "Faith."

"Rich Girl" sounds very similar to the original with some fresh nuances here and there (many thanks to the trumpet), and a lot less mustache. "Let Me Roll It" was a tune I'd never heard before that has traded in the Brit-rock electric guitars from the original for some tasty new licks courtesy of Olson and Kearney. "This Magic Moment" maintains it's throwback sound with a very cool latin-inspired drum groove and soulful male harmonies presumably from Olson and Calaprese. The George Michael tune has received the New Orleans treatment, trading in it's '80s electro-pop sound for a funky second-line feel that almost bobs your head for you.

Even though this is only the group's EP (second full-length album is slated to release later this month), I can (and have) listened to all six songs over and over. This is a group to look out for, and, thanks to their 'don't-need-a-studio-to-sound-good' talent, would be worth seeing live. I hope you guys enjoy this one as much as I do.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Week 4

Before the Amplifiers by Sister Hazel

For those of you needing a '90s fix, here you go.

If you grew up in the '90s and aren't familiar with Sister Hazel, you probably should be. Most of my friends were into them throughout high school and almost everyone I knew could sing along to "All for You" (probably their most popular single). SH was also my first live concert near Lake Guntersville in Alabama. 

Before the Amplifiers is Sister Hazel's first acoustic recording from a small session at Nickel and Dime Studios in Atlanta. The concert hits all of their singles along with plenty of other songs they are sure to please SH fans and casual fans of that polished adult alternative sound that bands like Nine Days, Better Than Ezra, and Ingram Hill helped establish. 

We get the pop harmonies that Ken Block and Jeff Beres have perfected since the beginning, the simple yet sometimes funky guitar riffs from Ryan Newell and Andrew Copeland, and super-tight playing from Mark Trojanowski on kit and cajon.

As far as the songs go, one thing I appreciate from the start is that SH begins their set with "Champagne High" - one of their most popular singles. Instead of waiting for a few so-so songs to get the concert going, they jump right in with a harmony-rich, guitar solo-filled version of a fan favorite which shows that the group definitely is in tune with their audience. I'm down with that. 

Next up is a downtempo version of "Hold On" from their album, Lift. This is one of many songs from the set that keep the lyrics and harmonies, but change the feel or tempo. Two songs later, "All for You" gets a similar treatment with its introduction. Others include a slower version of "Just Remember," a pretty cool bluegrass-inspired version of "Starfish," and harmonically-altered ballad version of "Happy." Not something that happens often with stereotypical pop groups.

I should also mention that they close the set in a pretty cool way. The last song they play is the first song that Sister Hazel ever had called "Feel It." This song only appears on their very first album (self-titled) which is affectionately known by SH fans as 'the white album.' It's as tight as anything else from this concert and I can't think of many groups that are honest enough to end a concert with a single that hardly anyone (including their fans) knows. 

To conclude, this well-recorded acoustic set from Gainesville's Sister Hazel is a snapshot of everything SH fans have come to know and love. From the audience interaction, to the two and three-part harmonies, to the one-time-only alterations to their staples, dedicated fans and casual listeners alike (especially those who were digging on Del Amitri and Blind Melon back in the day) will find plenty to like in Before the Amplifiers.