Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The City Champs – The Safecracker

Dance music doesn’t get any better than this. Sounding like they just got off the train from Memphis, 1968, the City Champs lay down an irresistible hip-twisting groove in the same vein as classic soul instrumentalists like Booker T & the MGs, the Meters, the late Willie Mitchell and the Bar-Kays. The production values are strictly oldschool – this may be a cd but it sounds like a vinyl record, warm and glowing with Hammond organ and tersely tuneful soul guitar, propelled with muscle and swing by veteran Memphis soul/blues drummer George Sluppick. Yet as retro as the production is, this isn’t just a homage – guitarist/bandleader Joe Restivo adds an understatedly jazzy virtuosity while the southern flavor flows from organist Al Gamble’s Leslie speaker. Sometimes the guitar will build to a crescendo or wrap up a solo and then hand off to the organ, sometimes vice versa, and sometimes – this is the best part – everybody grooves together.

The title track is an edgy, gritty crime movie theme that wouldn’t be out of place in the Herbie Hancock songbook, circa 1970. Takin’ State is a strutting staccato dance shuffle, Restivo slipping and sliding with a carefree, sly Steve Cropper feel. The low-key, George Benson-inflected jam Love Is a Losing Game has the guitar handing the reins over to the organ to bring the lights down and steam up the windows – maybe love’s not such a losing game after all.

Poppin’ bounces along on a catchy New Orleans blues guitar riff that boils over and then simmers as Sluppick gets the cymbals cooking, then the organ picks it up and blazes. The funkiest track on the album is The Whap-a-Dang, organ swirling in, Booker T style, after Restivo’s pimpmobile solo. Pretty Girl sounds like George Benson covering a sultry midtempo, Hugh Masekela hit; the cd closes with Coming Home Baby, a head-bobbing Stax/Volt blues groove which is a dead ringer for a Booker T hit from around 1964 except with more expansive guitar. Soul music lovers and jazz guitar fans alike will love this. The City Champs are at Highline Ballroom on Feb 26 with the North Mississippi All-Stars, wear comfortable shoes. They’re also in the new documentary I Am a Man, which you can stream here.

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January 26, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The One and Nines

If you love oldschool soul music, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings or Eli “Paperboy” Reed, you will love the One and Nines – they are the real deal. With piano, organ, horns, understatedly gorgeous guitar, a slinky rhythm section and the warmly irresistible, heartfelt vocals of frontwoman Vera Sousa, the vibe is totally mid-60s. If the band had existed when John Waters did Hairspray, this album would have been the logical choice for the movie soundtrack.

The album kicks off with Walked Alone, a gorgeously catchy, upbeat tune straight out of Memphis, 1968 with big honking baritone sax. Sousa shows off an effortlessly bright, soaring, unselfconscious style in the vein of 1960s soul icon Bettye Swann while the guitar and bass soar just in the right places. The second track, Wait is a longing, insistent 6/8 ballad like Sharon Jones in a particularly vulnerable moment – horns rise out of the end of the verse, then it’s just tremolo organ and Sousa’s sweet voice.

“You say I look like I’m always bored, but are you just speaking for yourself?” Sousa asserts gently but insistently in Something on Your Mind, backed by gently incisive guitar and a Willie Mitchell-inspired horn chart. Just Your Fool is a duet, one of the guys joining with Sousa’s fetching harmonies for a pre-Motown vibe, from right around the time doo-wop started to morph into something more interesting. The band follows Sousa as she builds intensity on Anything You Got, a psychedelic soul groove with organ and then Steve Cropper-esque guitar, finally fading out with soulful muted trumpet over the band’s shuffling rhythm. Guitar finally takes centerstage, if only for a few moments on the bright, bouncy horn-driven Tears Fall. The secret bonus track, an alternate take of Just Your Fool, might have the best vocals on the whole album. All of these songs would have been hits in the 60s – or some hardcore soul fan would be rediscovering them right about now and trying to get the surviving members of the band back together, that’s how good this is. Mixed by Hugh Pool at Excello and mastered by Fred Kevorkian, the production has the feel of an old vinyl record, vocals up front, drums back where they need to be. Even better news is that the band’s got a 7″ vinyl single coming out hot on the heels of the album – get your 45 adapters ready. Watch this space for NY-area live dates.

January 23, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: Nicholas Howard – God Is in the City

Unlike what the title might have you believe, this isn’t a gospel album although there is a gospel influence in a lot of the songs. With his raspy tenor voice, Jackson Heights, New York’s own Nicholas Howard delivers a whole lot of hooks and a feel for soul music that blends a vintage Detroit and Philly sound, circa 1970. It’s definitely retro yet infused with new ideas and fresh energy – this guy is putting his own stamp on it rather than just being derivative. Refreshingly, he’s got a real band behind him rather instead of the ubiquitous synth, drum machine and maybe a handful of samples in what’s left of “R&B.” This could be what John Legend might dream of making if he didn’t have the corporate overseer standing over him, whip in hand, ready to crack it the second he does anything original or interesting. No autotune here either: God was definitely in the studio when this was recorded.

The title track is a big gospel-fueled anthem yet is extremely simple and terse. It would make a good theme for a show like The Wire. In the middle, it goes doublespeed and then suddenly back to the main theme, an ambitious move that doesn’t really work.  So Much Left to Say is a slinky organ groove with a turn-of-the-decade sound, just around the time soul was getting orchestrated but before it lost that delicious trebly tube amp guitar feel. Horns come in and juice up the end of the chorus, then the song ends cold.

With bit of a reggae feel, My Hands Are Rough – “I need a drink, a dance or two, I am jonesing” would have been a big dancefloor hit in the 70s. Life Is a Mystery is quite a change, opening with a little quote from the James Bond theme and then getting carnivalesque, even noir. If Tom Waits was a soul singer he might do something like this. Howard maintains the mysterious vibe with Scotch on Her Lips, a slow jam where he’s fallen under the spell of a boozy witch, electric piano dripping eerily.

Blood from a Stone kicks off with a staccato piano riff, eventually building to an insistent, New Orleans-tinged “stay out of my life” anthem. Then it goes doublespeed as the organ swirls and the rubber meets the road. The gentle, Memphis-style 6/8 ballad Mother features some vivid Steve Cropper style guitar – it would be perfectly at home on a Robert Cray album. Different View takes a lazy Bill Withers-style groove and makes trip-hop out of it.

The cd winds up with the strikingly dark psychedelic Weimar blues of Carnival and the upbeat, horn-driven What If I’ve Shown You It All. You’re going to see this on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year. Watch this space for live dates.

June 12, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment