It actually took several listens to Janelle Monae’s full length album debut The ArchAndroid to fully grasp it’s musical virtues before even being able to review it in my head,lead alone here in black and white. That was several years ago. And the review I did do here only came after seeing her live in concert a year after that. It was a truly captivating experience: “united funk” all the way-meaningful grooves,messages and an enormous amount of involvement and communication with the audience. Strangely enough after that,a certain level of cynicism began to sink in on my part. Attitudes like…what if Monae’s intense creativity was a gimmicky fluke? Would she become a generic artist pimping the pleasure principle like so many the next time,to sell more albums? And had the early 1990’s style critical negativity gotten to me at last? How selfish of me. Here was the very fulfillment of the musical desires and imaginative ideas I’d had since adolescence manifesting itself before my eyes. Why reject that for the sake of psychically numb realism? When I heard earlier in the year her follow up was about to arrive,it was a summer of waiting with baited breath to here the musical fruits of her passions. With no hyperbole intended,I am astounded with what was heard!
Beginning with “Electric Overture”, Suit IV a swirling blend of cinema and surf rock guitar we go into “Givin’ Em What They Love”-a thudding and minimal funk-rocker featuring of course Prince himself. Having heard a version of “Q.U.E.E.N” during the summer,this Erykah Badu duet is a superbly realized Minneapolis style rhythm guitar/spicy boogie funk synthesizer. “Electric Lady” slows the groove right down to a crawl with this heavily texturized electronics bubbling up from an heavily reverbed drum and bass line-Monae and Solange Knowles’s voice blending into perfect harmony. On “Primetime” Janelle and Miguel’s male/female duet is set within the musical framework of another spare,lightly beat heavy (and therefore very funky) mid tempo ballad. “We’re Only Rock ‘N Roll” jumps right into a sleeker interpretation of the classic James Brown groove than on the previous albums “Tightrope”-as well as having a more melodically constructed song craft about it. “The Dance Apocalyptic” goes right for the heart of this uptempo Caribbean-type funk jaunt while “Look Into My Eyes” brings in the Spanish tinge with a sensually flamenco inflected tango.
Suit V begins with the beautifully cinematic orchestral 60’s type next part of the “electric overture” before going into the early 70’s Chicago soul inspired “It’s Code” which,along with “Can’t Live Without Your Love” and “Victory” bring out that “sweet funk” sound of that specific musical ethic. With it’s theatrical blend of synthesizer bass and intense rhythm “Ghetto Woman” is complexly melodic electronic funk like you’ve never heard it before-asking for sympathy for it’s character rather than the derision of society.”Sally Ride” is a tight,slowed down foot stomper of a jam that’s full of honesty and a little attitude. “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes”,with the equally talented Esperanza Spalding,is absolutely amazing-with it’s thorough understanding of jazzy style keyboard textures and sensual,truth telling rhythms. Not to mention melodic and harmony suggestions that are alternately passionate and paranoid in the best heavy on easy sophistifunk fashion before ending the album with the slow and dynamic boogie funk of “What An Experience”.
Many of the songs on this album feature interludes such as “Good Morning Midnight”,”The Chrome Shoppe” and “Our Favorite Fugitive”,narrated by DJ Crash Crash that illustrate this albums concept. Cindy Mayweather,the space faring archandroid has arrived at the threshold of an apocalypse-with only a group of Mayweather clones called the Electric Ladies providing a degree of satisfaction. Is it another P-Funk like conceptual tract? Not at all. This album is full of many different variations of what actually turns out to be a very important message to the listener. In an environment where a culture itself is almost entirely ruled by fear of one thing or another without realizing it,the best way to live life is to be aware and gain knowledge. But also to be in a position where you can change things for the better. This theme isn’t illustrated by mere preaching. There’s a theatrical storyline just as with her first two releases,as well as a set of characters with their own situations. The stage was set,the players were in place for this album and Janelle Monae more than showed she could dance-literally and figuratively. She has affirmed her place as the much needed innovator of the funk/soul/jazz/R&B spectrum and did so by diving head long into the funky gumbo of Stevie Wonder,Prince,James Brown,Gil Scott Heron and Curtis Mayfield that she channels into her musical orbit. An amazing piece of music that,on many levels,words may not be able to adequately describe.
*For Original Amazon Review,Follow This Link:
Filed under 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, Esperanza Spalding, Funk, Janelle Monae, Minneapolis, Prince, Solange', Soul, Stevie Wonder, Women
Following the success of “Virtual Insanity” Jamiroquai’s Travelling Without Moving album became something of a blockbuster,spinning off hit after deserving hit during 1997,even culminating in a successful non album single Deeper Underground from Godzilla: The Album. Than suddenly that convergence of new and vibrant creative energy of the mid 1990’s began to dissipate as time passed. Not only was a century about to turn but a millennium was too. So by decades end the MTV roster and radio that Jamiroquai were champions of for a time was suddenly beginning the first waves of success from the likes of Backstreet Boys,Britney Spears,Hansen,N’Sync and the actually musically deserving Spice Girls had by this point come and gone. Pop had caught a heavy case of neophilia and wasn’t letting go. So when this follow up arrived to what should have been great anticipation and fan fare….it sank almost into commercial oblivion and would be largely forgotten stateside for many years. But this would emerge as what might actually,to this point anyway since they are still recording,Jamiroquai’s finest and most fully musically realized album. They sure had a lot of creative inspiration. Pop music was witnessing the official ending of the age of the artist,extending from the 60’s into the 90’s and into the modern era. A time that dominated by the peak of internet obsession,when the term “.com” was still a buzz word and where visual media was at a primary. In the meantime,for those mostly musical types still paying Jamiroquai close attention things were just getting better.
From start to finish this is their most glossily produced album of the decade. But the finery in which this music was constructed and the extremely well oiled grooves are what makes this. “Canned Heat” comes straight out of their classic disco dance/funk sound and was actually something of a commercial success too,taking on a Chic-like witty look at modern dance culture. Interestingly enough songs such as “Planet Home” as well as “Destitute Illusion” and “Supersonic”,with their heavy reliance on scratching and break beats sport are the first Jamiroquai songs to really acknowledge the early 80’s hip-hop/DJ scene that inspired young Jay Kay to begin with. However that 70’s funk band flavor is still paramount. “Black Capricorn Day” brings a hot and heavy Sly inspired horn/phased electric rhodes piano sound to the mix. “Falling” has that great softly jazz funk flavor to it. “Soul Education” is one of those hits that never happened. Great jazzy guitar line,floating rhythm make it Jamiroquai styled sophistifunk of the best kind. Pitty it was a forgotten album track. Hard to be subjective on that one. “Butterfly” takes on a similar flavor with one of the most elaborate melodic constructs they’d ever had.Of course in terms of melody the harpsicord sounding closer “King For A Day” isn’t a bad shot at repeating that feat. “Where Do We Go From Here” has a heavy late 70’s Quincy/MJ style dance flavor to it and is one of the most well crafted jams here.
In every possible way Jamiroquai were an unqualified musical success of the 1990’s. They dared to be different in a time when pop music was becoming sanctioned into so many subdivisions and schools,it began to seem unapproachable. They also helped to make clear how potent,important,beautiful and underappreciated 70’s funk/soul/disco music was in all it’s many forms. Yes there were always those types who will accuse the band,more notably Jay Kay for “faking the funk”. But frankly that’s basically yet more media credibility,not music. I doubt George Clinton coined that phrase back in the day so some critics could use it to hate on what they didn’t like and appreciate. It’s too bad though that,when Jamiroquai seemed to have hit the highest end of their peak with this album that hardly anyone paid attention. If they had,the pop music landscape wouldn’t have been in the confused dire straits it was in in the first decade or so of the millennium. Creatively and musically speaking,the 2000’s would not prove as potent and consistent a time for Jamiroquai as they seemed to slowly abandon their close knit band mentality in favor of retreating into the backround as Jay Kay and his own musical interests seemed to take presidents. I don’t know how or why this happened. But only now is that being somewhat remedied. While it’s doubtful Jamiroquai themselves will ever make anything this creatively vital again,this is truly an inspiration for bands that,during difficult times in music,being yourself will eventually work to your advantage.
Originally Written On December 30th,2011
*Here is the original review:
Filed under 1990s, Acid Jazz, Amazon.com, Disco, Electronica, Funk, Funk Bass, Jamiroquai, Late 70's Funk, Music Reviewing, Stevie Wonder
One of the most surprising musical moments of my life was when I was browsing through Bull Moose Records in Bangor and found a copy of an EP by Ashford And Simpson from 1996 featuring…Maya Angelou? I was so puzzled by the seemingly odd creative fit that I avoided the album time and time again. Yesterday I was met with the unfortunate news that Miss Angelou had passed away at the age of 1986. She was one of those individuals who had an amazing life-a black Silent generation woman who achieved an enormous level of literary respect on her own. And someone whose prose,verse,dignity and grace of person not only earned her much acclaim but was an enormous influence on the careers of many diverse figures-from Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama. Realizing Motown being founded by a group of eager Silent generation artists looking to present music with grace and dignity? I suddenly realized just how appropriate Maya’s collaboration with Nick & Val was. Especially upon hearing their song together entitled “Sweet Thing”.
The song opens musically with an echoing, Clavinet like synthesizer that rings out a tinkling blues riff before the drums kick in and this foot stomping rhythm & blues shuffle kicks in,full of hard gospel/soul style horns and a thumping bass-all with a slickly contemporary production twist of course. Nick and Valerie start in by alternately harmonizing on what begin as passionately romantic lyrics that have that great storytelling quality that most classic Motown songs possessed. After their their harmonized chorus,Maya chimes in offering her own spoken word impressions of a similar impulse. She utilizes her imagistic metaphors,which would not be out of place had they actually come from the pen of a Smokey Robinson. A favorite lyrical aspect of Maya’s part of the song for me is when she says “when the world asks me what’s my favorite film,I say St.Louis Blues and he plays it a little” . She goes on to say “If someone asks me how to call your name,your a riff by Bird and solo by John Coltrane,your the whole Misssissippi river the the whole coast of Maine”
The lyrical imagery that Maya Angelou bought to this song enhances the fact that this is actually extremely hard driving,high quality funky music-especially for its era. During the mid 1990’s,many Silent generation veteran musicians were rather concerned with sounding “new” rather than being true to themselves. A trend that continues to this day to a degree. While musical styles of past decades accomodated many generations? The post hip-hop world was a bit more fickle in that regard. What Maya Angelous and Ashford & Simpson did on this song was not only modernize classic shuffling rhythm & blues music,by that time largely a brand name whose true meaning seemed lost,and looked to remind a younger and often more profane youth culture that the concerns of the three generations of black people living at the time were not as divergent as they seemed to be . While Maya herself could politely ask her friend Richard Pryor to leave her home due to his profane language? She also realized that romance and hope were something that would far outlast one rather cynical age. And both musically and lyrically,this song with Ashford & Simpson bought that to the table when it was perhaps most needed. Both the late Nick Ashford and Maya Angelou will be missed,yet their legacy together as artists will remain in works such as this