Thursday, February 03, 2011

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead...

"The Devil Gives Me Everything Except What I Need"---Willy West & The High Society Brothers (zShare)

"The Devil Gives Me Everything Except What I Need"---Willy West & The High Society Brothers (UserShare)

Since I haven't done an update in quite some time, I wanted to kick off today's post with something that would shake your bones and rattle your teeth...perhaps even remind you why you still stop by on occasion despite your host's inexcusable negligence and inhospitality. Some of the more industrious soul brothers have beaten me to the punch in writing about this particular record, but it's such a gigantic tune that it feels like there's plenty of room for one more observation of its astronomic magnitude.

The almighty Willie West (aka Millard Leon) was born and raised in Raceland, LA, a rural town that's approximately an hour's drive from New Orleans. By age 15, West was already developing lofty musical aspirations, and had formed a band called The Sharks with his cousin and a couple of his friends from school. The group primarily covered radio hits and songs by popular rock, soul and blues artists, although Willie and his bandmates weren't yet old enough to gain entry into any of the clubs where their favorite artists were performing.

West eventually began hanging around outside of the Sugar Bowl, a famous establishment in Thibodaux, LA that was host to an impressive array of renowned musical acts. Undaunted by the limitations imposed by his youth, the enterprising adolescent would drink wine and strum his guitar, stealing glances through windows and acquainting himself with the performers whenever the opportunity should happen to arise. This strategic positioning enabled the ambitious upstart to rub elbows with legendary artists such as Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, Chuck Willis, and Sam Cooke. Accordingly, tenacity has been an essential defining characteristic for West, a man who has stubbornly clung to his dreams despite the seemingly insurmountable barriers that have hindered their realization.

I could elaborate on the exhaustive list of reasons why West's persistence failed to catapult him into superstardom, but ultimately, it all boils down to the same obstacles faced by countless other well-deserving recording artists: poor marketing, limited distribution, mismanagement, label woes, and living in the shadows of other musicians who were thought to be more commercially viable. The years he spent recording with the almighty Allen Toussaint and his unparalleled work ethic should have garnered him a life of fortune and fame, but listen, children...the American dream is pretty much on some bullshit...unless of course, you've got bangs like Justin Bieber. However, what he may lack in earthly riches is at least partially offset by his experience in working with the likes of Al Green, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Lee Dorsey, The Meters, Dr. John, The Electric Soul Train, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Paul McCartney, James Brown, and the list continues on into infinity.

West's resilience is perhaps one of the great wonders of the world, and this spirited veteran of the music industry continues to soldier on into the present. Relocating to Minnesota in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he's managed to rejuvenate his career by landing higher paying gigs, as well as recording new material for Timmion Records. The label released "The Devil Gives Me Everything Except What I Need" as a 7" in 2009 (TR-019). Backed by a Finnish funk combo known as the High Society Brothers, West delves into emotional depths that are rarely grazed by the dull blade of most contemporary artists. It's a painful reminder of how dishonest a lot of music sounds these days when you hear his gritty and impassioned vocal delivery on this cut. Artistic geniuses often find themselves in the unenviable position of suffering for the greater good, and I would argue that this record is...quite extension of that very idea.

I hope that after hearing/reading this, you'll be inspired to start digging for West's material, and possibly even make an effort to catch one of his live performances. If you want to extend respect for the man's unshakable hustle, what's more essential than to show and prove that his blood, sweat and tears haven't been shed in vain?

Dig deeper...

"One Of These Days"---The Q4 (zShare)

"One Of These Days"---The Q4 (UserShare)

One of the hottest labels to emerge in the new millenium is Project: Mooncircle, the beautiful bastard love child of artist/DJ/founder Gordon Gieseking. When I featured another group on its roster, Numaads, it was literally the shot heard 'round the soul child universe. I received more positive feedback and gratitude for covering them than just about any other group in recent memory. The high praise for their talent is certainly well-deserved, and should serve as evidence that, much like the Judeo-Christian God, Project: Mooncircle don't make no junk...

The caliber of material on the label is further exemplified by the outstanding material released thus far by The Quadraphoniquartet. Comprised of Arts the Beatdoctor, Sense and STW, Q4 is the outgrowth of three accomplished Dutch producers blending their unique styles to create an electrifying sound collage.

The sharper knives in the drawer may be wondering why a group comprised of three beatsmiths would call themselves The Q4. When the members joined forces in 2005, there were four producers from different regions of the Netherlands on board. One of them apparently exited due to time constraints, but the remaining trio soldiered on, deciding to keep their original vision and namesake firmly intact. As you may know, the name pays homage to a sound system that was popular in the '70s, which emitted sound from four speakers in the formation of a square. Each component brought its own noise, as well as being an integral part of a unified sonic experience. It's a truly fitting analogy for a group of artists whose sublime palette is derived from a seemingly effortless blend of three individual aesthetics.

While The Q4 have released a full-length LP (Sound Surroundings), an EP (Darker Days), and even inspired a tribute single by Mr. Cooper & Dday One, the threesome can hardly be considered prolific in an industry climate vexed by oversaturation. Their process for creating compositions is detailed and meticulous, cutting hundreds of samples and incorporating material recorded with session musicians. What they deliver in terms of quality certainly overrides any expectations concerning quantity, and the trio has already proven that their material is well worth the wait.

If you're feelin' "One Of These Days", you may also want to check out the remix by Glen Porter, another essential player on Project: Mooncircle's impeccable roster. Also, for those of you who like digging for the origins of sample-based music, here's the song that laid the foundation for the vocals on this killer cut:

This Ray Charles original was covered by The Animals in 1965, several years after Charles had released the track. Versions by Donny Hathaway, Albert King, Van Morrison, Al Cooper, and many others have followed suit.

Dig deeper... The Q4

Dig deeper... The Animals

"Dirt"---Shahmen (zShare)

"Dirt"---Shahmen (UserShare)

I guess maybe I've been sippin' and trippin' on the kool-aid again...but...I've been so hyped on Project: Mooncircle's jaw-dropping roster that I want to kick some knowledge about another one of their projects before I quit frontin' like I'm getting paid: the magnificent, unfuckwitable Shahmen. This powerhouse trio is comprised of the aforementioned Sense, in addition to a couple of rock solid MCs, known as Unorthadox and B L S. My fingers aren't stuttering ONE bit as I type that these guys are creating some of the most hauntingly affective hip hop music that my ears have heard in...foreva eva.

This ingenious collaborative effort was born in 2006, when B L S met Sense while passing through the latter's hometown of Amsterdam. Immediately recognizing their connection as kindred spirits, the two recorded a track together on the very first day of their acquaintance. They parted ways just as suddenly, when B L S returned to New York to continue studying psychology, and Sense went back to working diligently on his compositions for the Q4 and other projects. Despite the fact that he was still throwin' down with Freud, a creative spark had been ignited in B L S. He started writing to some demos and beats that Sense had given him, and formulated a plan to ultimately return to Amsterdam to collaborate on an album with his newfound friend.

Several months later, the fledgling lyricist was finally in a position to transform his dream into a reality. There was only one glitch in the execution of his grandiose ideas: Sense knew absolutely nothing about his future partner's intentions until the moment he arrived on his doorstep. Although he welcomed the opportunity to record a second track with B L S, he was initially hesitant to embrace the idea of taking on an entire full-length project.

By sheer accident or well-plotted scheme, the MC happened to leave his rhyme book behind when he departed from the studio that day. As Sense started leafing through the pages, he experienced a mind-boggling epiphany: the verses that lay before him were, most assuredly, the perfect words he'd been seeking to complement his sounds. Within a month of this game-changing revelation, the dynamic duo had inexplicably managed to lay down more than 50 tracks in the producer's home studio.

Recording in Amsterdam, as well as travelling through West Africa and South America, Sense and B L S spent the better part of three years cultivating their impeccable creation. They were joined by Orthodox midway through the process and began writing new material with him, as well as adding his vocals onto some tracks that were already in existence. After bringing Arts The Beatdoctor on board to master the project, Shahmen finally released their Enter the Circle EP as a free download in April of last year.

Although my response in writing about this EP is clearly d-d-delayed, I've kept these seven songs in heavy rotation for several months now, and still haven't grown tired of listening to them. Every day there are countless submissions in my inbox that might threaten to disrupt my ridiculously short attention span, and yet, Enter the Circle stubbornly refuses to be edged out by newer, shinier things.

A full-length effort was originally slated to drop in September of last year, but for the time being, the release appears to be on hold. If anyone knows the status of the situation, do the right thing and drop some knowledge in the box. In the meantime, check out the opening joint from the EP, the exquisitely noir, achingly beautiful head-nodder known as "Dirt".

Dig deeper... *includes link for free download

"Sunday Morning"---Amanaz (zShare)

"Sunday Morning"---Amanaz (UserShare)

Speaking of labels that release mind-blowing material, Stones Throws' Now Again subsidiary has an undeniable knack for harvesting gems that were previously unavailable for mass consumption. The obscurity of these recordings is usually due to limited pressings or distribution~ or, as is the case with Amanaz, both of these factors may be to blame.

Amanaz's Africa LP was originally released in 1975, and is loosely classified in collector-speak as zam-rock. For the less geeky amongst us, zam-rock is a term used to describe music by Zambian artists that was heavily influenced by Western blues, psych, and prog rock of the '60s and '70s. There may be grounds to engage in a discussion about the ways that this entire concept is potentially problematic, but I reference it here because if you do any research about Amanaz, you'll find that this term tends to resurface time and again.

Upon listening to this album, I'm confident that you'll identify similarities to a bevy of popular British and American musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Miles, Cream, James Brown, and even Velvet Underground. Additionally, most of the songs on Amanaz's one and only recorded offering are sung in English (the remainder of the vocal tracks are in the native Zambian language of Bemba). Both of these factors weigh heavily into this album being stamped with the zam-rock label, but there's also a rich political, historical and ethnographic context to be explored that's well beyond the scope of this post. If you are willing to do some digging, you'll understand why Fela Kuti's material is being peddled at Best Buy, while the incredibly lush musical history of the Zambians is scarcely recognized.

Acknowledging the Western impact on artists such as Amanaz should not, by any stretch of the imagination, lead to the conclusion that their material was derivative or unoriginal. For one thing, it's generally foolish to define the path of musical influence in terms of unidirectional flow. Additionally, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown brought the funk to pretty much everyone across the globe who had access to a radio~ the emulation of their styles was, and still is, a commonplace occurrence on every scratch of earth inhabited by humanity. Furthermore, any notes that Amanaz and other zam-rock pioneers may have taken from these greats are counterbalanced and accentuated by defining elements of their unique socio-political environment. In the tradition of great music worldwide, the songs these musicians crafted were born in a climate of unrest and burgeoning political dissent. Accordingly, Africa is readily distinguishable in the ways it's firmly planted in the spirit of the times, not to mention the fact that it bears the individual perspectives of all five bandmates.

Although it's still arguably a cohesive selection of material, Africa is an eclectic, multi-genre affair, which may project the illusion that a larger, more loosely aggregated collective of musicians was involved. "Sunday Morning" is perhaps not the best track in an objective sense, but it's so soulful and beautiful that I'm hoping it will reel in some potential members for Amanaz's woefully uncrowded fan club.

If you decide to cop this LP, you can get a virtually flawless remastered CD version through Stones Throw's website for $15.99. Wax enthusiasts, on the other hand, might want to save their lunch money for the vinyl copy released by Shadoks Music. You'll probably end up paying close to $50, but it's a second pressing on transparent yellow vinyl, and there are only 300 of them in existence. I've never personally ordered from them, but Insound is one of the few retailers who seems to still be carrying it.

Dig deeper...

"I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore"---Lorez Alexandria (zShare)

"I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore"---Lorez Alexandria (UserShare)

Those who've heard Lorez Alexandria's name in passing tend to primarily associate her with the genres of gospel and jazz, but anyone familiar with her repertoire can surely attest to her impressively wide-ranging style. As is the case with artists such as the late, great Nina Simone, Alexandria made her mark as a stunning interpretive vocalist. Her material encompassed such an incredibly broad spectrum, it's inconsequential and misleading to specify her artistry via any simplified means of categorization.

Lorez's In A Different Bag LP was originally released in 1969, and if nothing else, it certainly underscores her ability to stretch her talent into the reaches of soul, R&B, and popular music. Its accessibility and foray into more mainstream material rendered the singer equal amounts of criticism and acclaim. Some critics and fans felt she'd lost her sense of self, and perhaps even her mind, while others celebrated her uncanny ability to tackle fare such as The Beatles' "Hey Jude" and make it undeniably her own.

"I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore" is a cover of a song written by Randy Newman, and I have no doubt that for many, it will land somewhere in the middle of love-it-or-leave it territory. I personally think it's a phenomenal recording...fucking phenomenal even. I grew up listening to Jerry Butler's beloved rendition, and let's face it~ he set the bar ridiculously high as the first artist who committed it to wax. Many hits and misses were to follow: Dusty Springfield and Scott Walker both released truly worthwhile covers of the song...but there's no forgetting the PJ Proby version, which forces me into a state of despair so deep, I have to wonder if life's really worth living anymore. Proby's cover is considered by many to be the definitive version, but for me, Alexandria's take is the only one capable of holding significant weight against the Ice Man's powerhouse original. Disagree with me if you'd like, but someone has to take up for the overlooked efforts of the underdog!

In A Different Bag was out-of-print for many years, until it was reissued in 2001 with its 1968 predecessor, an album called Didn't We. Both LPs were originally released on Pzazz Records, a label started by New Orleans legend Paul Gayten. Gayten, who held things down at Chess Records during one defining moment in his career, acted as producer on both of these under-appreciated, yet ingenious, LPs. Lorez Alexandria: The 60's Pzazz Sessions is currently out of stock or unavailable via many online retailers, so if you happen to come across a copy, you might want to snag it right way.

As always, I'd encourage you to dig deeper..., and explore a wider scope of Alexandria's vast library of recordings. By now, most of you know better than to base your opinions solely on the oddball song selections of your humble scholar...right???

Peace and love, soul babies~ stay beautiful...

Word From Your Moms:

"On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts."---David Bowie