Tag Archives: New Music

Bruno Mars: Memories Of Doo Wops & Hooligans

Bruno Mars has symbolized how much the 2010’s have seen an occasional (sometimes too minor) rebirth of song and instrumental oriented soul/funk/pop music. And that’s of course speaking strictly on a commercial level. A child star in his native Honolulu, the man born  Peter Jean Hernandez continued to perform covers in LA after a failed stint with Motown before becoming a well known songwriter. What interests me most about him is how he recorded his full length 2010 debut album with a live band called The Hooligans. Who are with him to this day. As for that album itself…..


The first time I heard the name Bruno Mars when at a summer pride festival when a local band in my area called The Blast Addicts did a version of his song “The Lazy Song”. I’d seen this album around but paid it little attention. Over time I’ve had more exposure to his young hipster attitude and his inspired state show,I began to realize this might just be a talent worth exploring.

It’s been a very long time since I heard an artist whose songs were inspiring interpretation so early in the game. While references to him as “the new Michael Jackson” were a complete turn off at first,considering how few artists will ever likely live up to a vibrant talent on the level of MJ again, But what was this man going to have to say on his own terms?

The first two songs on this album “Grenade” and “Just The Way You Are” do in fact possess that epic production sound so common today,however the pop-soul song craft of the compositions themselves are really quite amazing. My personal favorite track here is the slinky funk/reggae of “Our First Time”,with it’s beautifully jazzy chord changes.

“Runaway Baby” is a high octane,guitar based funk rocker where “The Lazy Song” pulls pop,soul,funk and light hip-hop rhythms together for a song celebrating the sometimes slacker spirit of youth. The same impulse carries on into the sparse new wave style “Marry You”,though this time seeking a commitment through naivety. “Talking To The Moon” is a moody,reflective piano based ballad.

Damian Marley shows up for the heavy reverbed reggae of “Liquor Store Blues”,an ode to drowning sorrows where “Count On Me” is a sweet little acoustic based song with a strong Caribbean flavor. The ending finds Mars as a soul man supreme on the heavily Stax inspired “The Other Side” recorded,of course with Cee Lo Green. Brimming with youthful charm and innocence this singer/songwriter/musician also shows great potential for a significant,long term creative expansion as he grows artistically.

He puts a great deal of thought into his writing and his musical ideas. And while it’s clear he operates on many levels firmly within the contemporary musical idiom,his basic musical flavors come out of 60’s and 70’s sunshine pop melodies-through the filters of the soul,funk and reggae music he clearly loves. Probably the idea pop album for this particular time period.


This review of Bruno Mars’s first album was written by me five years ago, around the time I was taking an interest in his second effort Unorthodox Jukebox. Bruno’s music has since then been covered more on this blog by my friend Henrique Hopkins. He really helped to bring songs like “24 Karat” and the already iconic “Uptown Funk” to my initial attention in the doing. In any case, always felt it wise to approach Bruno’s music in an album context on my end. And am starting with his first here. Which shows how much tremendous growth Bruno’s music has made in the years since he made his solo debut.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Are You Ready” by The Isley Brothers & Santana

Erinie Isley said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine  that he first crossed paths with the Carlos Santana at Columbia Records convention in the 70’s. He recalled Santana’s band “took all the oxygen out of the room” playing their hits such as “Black Magic Woman” from their Abraxas album. Both Santana and the Isleys. Both were innovating in the late 60’s-a time where Latin rhythms, psychedelic bass/guitar and soulful vocals were all coming together for a music that was both highly funkified and rocked out. It would not be until 2016 that a pairing of the two began to take shape.

My friend/blogging consultant was the one who informed me of the collaborative album Power Of Peace. Ron Isley’s sister in law Kimberley-Johnson Breaux, a member of Rod Stewart’s band when she made the introduction between the two,which resulted in a two song collaboration on the Santana IV album in 2015. For their newest project, they are covering a collection of 60’s era topical and spiritual “people music” songs originally from the likes of Willie Dixon, Marvin Gaye, Leon Thomas, Curtis Mayfield and Burt Bacharach. The first song is a version of the Chambers Brother’s “Are You Ready”.

Santana’s classic Afro-Latin percussion starts the song before the jazzy funk bass comes in-playing in a deeply melodic manner around all the polyrhythms. The drums soon come in play a classic two-on-three funk beat. After that Ron Isley’s lead vocals play call and response to a combination of Carlos’s clean guitar tone and Ernie’s heavily filtered psychedelic style. Both play off of each other in beautiful unison throughout the song over melodic backup singing. After a drum/percussion break with on the beat vocal grunts, the drums and guitars close out on a duel psychedelic rock guitar extravaganza.

“Are You Ready” showcases precisely what one might expect from an Isley Brothers and Santana collaboration-even half a century after their salad days. Carlos Santana and Ernie Isley are playing with each other at the top of their form-as if the two guitar icons have been playing together consistently for decades. The groove itself literally has everything message oriented “people funk” would ideally have: that percussive Afro Latin rhythm,the psychedelic solos along with the funky drum and bass line. And its a reminder of the musical daring that generations of musicians need to always remember.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Heartstroke” by Calvin Harris featuring Pharrell Williams,Ariana Grande and Young Thug

Calvin Harris is yet another example of a European DJ/producer/multi instrumentalist in the 2010’s who have wound up keeping strong funkiness in their club oriented music. As a matter of fact, many of them (Harris included) have taken many contemporary singer/performer’s along for the ride with them. Hailing from Dumfries, Scotland, Harris is the son of a biochemist. Calvin himself had a very working class trajectory after high school-working odd jobs to buy DJ gear to develop his craft further.  By 2011, Harris was working with pop artists such as Rihanna. And had several major albums on his own too.

Last week Harris, whose generally EDM based releases have generally veered about as far as nu disco in the past, released his fifth studio album entitled Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1. It is his first to include no instrumental pieces. And is heavy on collaborations with contemporary singers and rappers. The album first came to my attention riding around town with my mom and hearing the song “Feels” from it on the local new music radio. Very much enjoyed it but upon listening closer, I found Big Sean’s language in it too profane. On the song I’m doing today “Heartstroke”,its a somewhat different story.

A cymbal and jazzy electric piano melody opens the album,with Pharrell Williams deepened voice being soon joined by light percussion and rhythm guitar. When Young Thug’s lead vocals coming,the songs post disco beat and grinding,popping bass line comes in to join it for the first verse of the song. Pharrell joins Young Thug in call and response harmony on the choruses. The song changes octave a bit when Ariana Grande comes in as vocal lead-again duetting with Pharrell. After a bridge with a more sustained synthesizer part, it all fades out on a psychedelic Latin funk wah wah/percussion tone.

What “Heartstroke” actually does musically is very interesting. It showcases the most condensed groove present in the (in its day) somewhat necessitated lower budget of early 80’s post disco/boogie music. Yet it also has some the jazzy electric piano and Brazilian style percussion flavors of late 70’s jazz funk. The type that found its way into Quincy Jones’s late 70’s/early 80’s productions as part of the “LA sound”. Young Thug’s language has its issues here for sure. But he presents it with a Jamaican dancehall style vocal that makes this a strong mixture of older and newer funky musical ideas.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Joy Ride” by TLC

TLC are a group that I never thought would come back. After all in terms of membership,its all come down to Chilli and T-Boz. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was in many ways the heart and soul of the 90’s trio. Since the time of Left Eye’s passing, the remaining two members have made some appearances,collaborations and been the subject of a biopic here and there. But even with all the trials,tribulations and financial ruin of their heyday,it didn’t seem that the passing of a key member would ever find them re-emerging in a huge way in terms of new studio material.

All of a sudden in early 2015,T-Boz and Chilli announced they were going to be releasing and fifth and final studio album using a Kickstarter campaign. Other artists such as Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake made major donations to their crowdfunding effort. The new self titled album was released June 30th of 2017. A couple of years earlier, the duo format of TLC went on tour with the New Kids On The Block and Nelly. And they released two new singles from their forthcoming album in Japan the next year. One of them is what I’ll be talking to you about today. Its called “Joy Ride”.

A three beat,echoed drum with a four note descending/ascending bass line provides the intro. A horn blasts gets into the funky shuffling drums,the bouncing pop of a rhythm guitar and the continuing bass line from the intro. Along with a three note,descending hip-hop style piano. As the song progresses,with little melodic changes from refrain to choruses,the rhythm alternately shows down as silences,horns and hand claps all join the instrumentation in different parts of the song. An extended chorus of the song concludes it all with the duo’s harmonies echoing the song to its fade out.

“Joy Ride” is a superb arrangement for TLC. Its based in their classic mix of live instrumental funky soul with a hip-hop friendly twist. The melody and harmonies of the group are just as locked down too. Written by Rebekah Muhammad, the song certainly understands the history of whose doing it. As I said to Henrique, its not something that shows TLC’s sound as changing all that much. But in as much as the original trio kept the funk and soul alive in their hip-hop based music in the 90’s, its just a really comforting thing to be back on the TLC tip. Even if it is just for one last time.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Yellow Light” by Pharrell Williams

Pharrell Williams has had four years since the summer of 2014. That was the summer that almost every town in America had people making YouTube videos to his stripped down soul jazz styled dance number “Happy”. Thus far,its likely the anthem for the 2010’s. And a somewhat unexpected one at that. Since that time,Williams has immersed himself in supporting social causes along with his usual production work. Among them was the 7 continent ‘Live Earth’ concert done with Al Gore to help raise awareness of and pressure governments to act on climate change.

Considering the recent global climate change conferences and the phenomenal response to “Happy” four years ago, Williams is fast proving the cynics wrong. That music can actually change the world-one song at a time. Recently Universal has released the sequel film Despicable Me 3. The 16 song soundtrack is set to feature seven songs from Pharrell Williams. One of them is a song which I heard via a Vevo search, for the very first time, just a couple days ago. And something about it just hit me over the head. The name of the song is “Yellow Light”.

Williams’ vocals popping along to the popcorn style synthesizer make up for the intro. The then main body of the song comes in. For the most part,its made up of a brittle and funky drum machine beat with a number of fills-accented on the final beat with a hi hat sound. In between that is a thick, bassy wah wah style,higher pitched synth wobble. Between each section of the song, there’s a break where an electric rhythm guitar accompanies William’s gospel like vocal shouts exactly. A vocal sample of someone saying the word “yo” fades out the song.

Musically speaking “Yellow Light” speaks to Pharrell Williams putting his special touch on his ever growing musical fusions. His basic style here is based on 80’s electro funk/hip-hop: instrumentally condensed and focused directly on the groove. At the same time, non of the mans soulful passion and love of humanity is lost on the song. Its an anthem for what he calls  “the united states of uncertainty”-praising sunlight as the “best disinfectant”-even throwing subtle shade at modern Hollywood with the line with “everyone’s overdosing the blue light use”. All and all,another one of Pharrell’s finest.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Tin Foil Hat” by Todd Rundgren featuring Donald Fagen

Todd Rundgren has been one of those DIY singer/songwriter/musician/producer’s who was successfully able to meld his many talents into collaborative projects. Coming out of The Nazz into his own solo career,through Utopia and onward. Yet it wasn’t until his most recent solo album White Night,released just over a month ago. The majority of the album concentrated on collaborations with a diverse range of artists. Among them old friend Daryl Hall and one particular partnership that really got me personally interested: one with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.

This particular collaboration came during a time when America and to a degree much of the Western World is in great turmoil. It was turmoil that actually stopped me from writing this blog for a week or so. Unlike the post 9/11 years happily, very few American artists have any fear in challenging the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump. In fact,Rundgren made news (even on Fox) regarding his desire not to have Trump supporters in his concert audiences causing trouble.  All of this is presented as part of his collaboration with Fagen entitled “Tin Foil Hat”.

A bluesy,vibraphone like two note keyboard line opens the song unaccompanied. Following that,electronic drums come in playing what seems to be a slow jazzy swing in 6/8 time. After that another keyboard comes in playing an organ type part-with that opening line assisting a swinging bass keyboard and guitar (or guitar like) tone. On the choruses,the chord changes to a slightly higher one before descending back into the refrain via a brief re-appearance of the organ style solo. By the final choruses, a bluesy piano joins the affair before the songs comes to an abrupt stop.

“Tin Foil Hat” is a song that addresses the entire Trump fiasco so well. Instrumentally,its a classic R&B/jazz/blues shuffle in Fagen’s classic style-with Rundgren’s vocal effects and own musical touches going right alongside it. Presented here is an accompanying music video,which has the songs wry and biting humor but also has a mild dire element of conspiracy theorists in high positions constantly foreseeing a coming apocalypse. Its an example of a funky,bluesy and soulful type song in 2017 delivering a message for the American people with both humor and effective social commentary.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “DNCE” by DNCE

DNCE, a group just introduced to me by my boyfriend Scott, are a never band who are in a somewhat complex musical position. Its a functional band of musicians consisting of bassist/keyboardist Cole Whittle, guitarist JinJoo Lee and drummer/percussionist Jack Lawless. Its lead singer is Joe Jonas,a member of the Disney based family pop/rock band The Jonas Brothers. Of course,JinJoo Lee was a member of Cee-Lo Green’s touring band in the early 2010’s. Whittle describes DNCE’s sound as being like funk and disco hits played by a good garage band. And of course,they have their influences.

70’s and 80’s funk,pop and disco of the likes of EWF,The Bee Gee’s,ELO,Hall & Oates and Prince. They also site 90’s alternative band Weezer as an influence as well. Having heard several songs from their self titled debut from 2016, this is obviously a very diverse band. And vocally,they have their modern pop ethic down pat. Still they have a strong love of a strong groove with a strong melody. There were several songs that stood out on the album for Scott and myself. The one that stood out most for me personally was basically the album and bands self titled theme song.

An acapella chant of the groups name starts out the song-just before a tougher vocal grunt gets the main melody going. Its a thick,slow drum accented by shuffling percussion. The rhythm guitar/slapping bass interaction has a rolling thickness. And the lead synthesizer plays a bright “church style” melody. On the third chorus of the song, horns (or at least horn samples come in) come into accent the melody-with each choral bridge having a a chugging guitar and percussion sound. The bridge breaks it all down to the drums,bass,horns and vocals before the chorus repeats to its abrupt final curtain.

“DNCE” is a groove that has a lot going on in it.  There’s a little bit of the Bee Gee’s “Jive Talkin'”,and the use of Prince style synthesizers to create gospel oriented melodic chords. The band are a very talented quartet. Counter to what I hear in much pop music of the 2010’s,everything on this song makes distinct musical statements. And every one of them come from the roots of the soul/funk/disco dance persuasion. The surface melodies are very strong and prominent. But the bottom has a thickness too. Should DNCE continue in this direction,they will be a nu funk to watch for more from.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Bad Ass And Blind” by Raul Midon

Raul Midon represents that strong Afro-Latin cultural and musical intersection for the mid to late 2000’s. Born in New Mexico,he and his brother Marco (currently a NASA scientist) were both blinded after birth due to an incubator malfunction. He went on to attend the University Of Miami,which he sought out for its strong jazz curriculum. He migrated to NYC after that,playing guitar for different Latin artists such as the then newcomer Shakira. While he started his solo career at the end of the 90’s,his big break came in 2005’s State Of Mind album,produced by the late great Arif Mardin.

Midon’s music was consistently a must buy,every album artist for me during the mid to late 2000’s. Being of Afro-Latin descent myself,the mans mixture of acoustic Latin jazz,soul and funk really spoke to a than strongly developing musical heart. During the 2010’s,I began neglecting following up on Midon’s career for no positive reason. And that includes his current album Bad Ass And Blind. But the other night,I decided to explore the albums songs on YouTube,where Midon had personally posted some of the albums songs. It was the title song that instantly stood out for me.

After a count off to four in Spanish,the song kicks right into gear. Its the main theme that extends musically throughout much of the song. The funky shuffling drums are accompanied by Midon’s equally bouncing acoustic rhythm guitar-along with a bubbling bass line right along for the ride. Only on one brief refrain does this rhythmic pattern change-quickly changing in rhythm to a hand clapped powered English folk/rock type melody. During the bridge of the song,Midon adds in a rap he wrote and performed before concluding the song with a rocking electric guitar solo.

“Bad Ass And Blind” has a vibe to it that reminds me somewhat of the vibe that Prince brought to his music. It has that sense of fusing a funky rhythm with acoustic folk/rock,hip-hop and rock instrumental elements. All while keeping the groove hot and alive. Midon also uses this to lyrically point out his musical uniqueness in this day and age. He discusses the modern means people use now to hear music and see videos. He also comments Stevie Wonder style on the unique musical visions his blindness engenders for him. So its an excellent example of hybridized funk grooves for 2017.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “The Greatest” by King

King are an LA female trio who seem to be getting a lot “magazine time” in Rolling Stone, The Fader, Spin and The New York Times. The core of the trio are the Strother sisters Paris and Amber as well as Anita Bias. This gives the group roots in Minneapolis as their late uncle was twin city bluesman Percy Strother. Its the sister Paris who produces the music,while the songwriting is a collaborative effort between all the members. There sound is a mixture of dreamy,funkified 80’s style “Afr0-Chill” as it were-with a strong Afro Caribbean influence in their heavily rhythmic electronic approach to music.

Since the release of their debut EP The Story in 2011,they appeared on the HIV/AIDS benefit tribute album Red Hot+Fela a couple of years later-doing the song “Go Slow”. Right in between that,they collaborated with contemporary jazz maestro Robert Glasper on the song “Move Love” from his Black Radio. Their 2016 debut album We Are King was nominated for best urban contemporary album at this years Grammy’s. That inspired me to seek out and purchase the CD of it. So far in my listening,the song that speaks and sings to me most is the Muhammad Ali tribute entitled “The Greatest”.

An electronic Afro Latin conga drum percussion stomp opens the album,as the main rhythm of the entire song. A synth riser brings the vocals in on its sonic wave. This is accompanied on the ethereal vocal harmonies on the song with song tingling,high pitched melodic synthesizers. There’s also a more brittle synth spike right in the middle of the arrangement-which solos right before the second refrain. As the song progresses,further stabs of arpeggiated synthesizers rise up to the same aural level as the lead vocal before the song fades out.

“The Greatest” is an amazing tribute to late champion Ali. It talks about the man being a fighter both in and out of the boxing ring. Have to congratulate the Strother sisters and Anita Bias for focusing on such a strong African American hero at a time when anti black racism continues to rear its ugly head. The music of the song never loses focus of its strong Afrofuturism. The rhythm is full on Afro Caribbean. And its complex, jazzy melodies are sung in meditative,chant like harmonies. King prove on this, and what I’ve heard of their debut album,to be a strong contemporary African American musical voice.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Cloud 9” by Jamiroquai

Jamiroquai were a band who,two decades ago now,were the musical lifeblood of my personal interest in funk and disco. Its a story that’s been told on this blog at least once. They’ve had their lineup changes over the years for sure. Even still over the years,their mid to late 90’s albums are ones that I still continue to return to many times. As a matter of fact,they tend to define how how I view the contemporary nu funk movement as a whole. That being said,never been one to give into blind idolatry of any musical figure either. And Jamiroquai have been no exception to that rule.

Following their (unintended) 9/11 release of A Funk Odyssey, Jamiroquai album releases became less and less frequent. Albums such as 2005’s Dynamite were promoted with the over modulated hip-hop influenced single “Feels Just Like It Should”. And with their 2008 album Rock Dust Light Star fading seemingly as quick as it came, Jamiroquai seemed to have faded into the annals of the past. Early this year,they announced the release of their 8th studio album Automaton.  The title track was released first. But this EDM influenced song didn’t speak so much to me as the newest lead off single from the album “Cloud Nine”.

A deep piano chord,an ethereal synth and vocal pulse provide the intro to the song. A string burst opens into the refrain of the song. This consists of a thick disco beat-with a polyphonic synth playing the lead melody. And assisted by a pulsing rhythm guitar and bubbling synth bass line playing the higher ends of the changes. The rhythm guitar and bubbling bass are higher in the mix on the choruses-along with the string burst that leads into the heavily echoed bass/synth line on the bridge. The refrain and chorus are lightly improvised upon until it fades-accompanied by a jazzy synth solo before it ends.

“Cloud 9”, as far as I’m concerned ,is Jamiroquai’s strongest single since “Little L” came out 16 years ago. It showcases the band moving in their own career arc much the same as funk did during its first generation. Much as Jamiroquai were a live percussion/horn based jazz/funk band with extended jams and instrumentals when they started out,they are now a post disco/boogie funk group with strong jazz/funk melodic influences by the time their 8th album is about to drop. Only the future can tell if Jamiroquai’s future is going to remain in this strong progression. But “Cloud 9” is an excellent step in this direction.

 

 

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