By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Sam Levin
By Timothy Lane
By Sam Levin
By Dennis Brown
By Chris Parker
By Sam Levin
This past year also marked the revival of the Black Artists Group, with a contingent of musicians (led by bassist Zimbabwe Nkenya) performing a series of free shows at the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site's Rosebud Café. Here's hoping that this new edition of BAG will continue to thrive in 2008 and beyond.
On the festival front, the news was mixed, as both the Big Muddy Blues Festival and the St. Louis Jazz and Heritage Festival were forced to downsize due to a lack of funds. However, the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival, headed up by UMSL music professor Jim Widner, continues to grow, with an entertaining, high-energy performance by Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band capping this year's event.
For many jazz fans, the most talked-about release of the year was the Miles Davis boxed set The Complete On The Corner Sessions, an expanded version of one of the trumpeter's most controversial albums. Also worth checking out: Metheny/Mehldau, which documents the recent collaboration between guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau, and Sonny, Please from tenor sax giant Sonny Rollins.
— Dean C. Minderman
Arcade Fire, Neon Bible (Merge). From the very first note — a divine howl from a massive cathedral pipe organ — this album is something special. What sets Neon Bible apart is the fact that a work of such staggering depth somehow manages to sound accessible. The subjects of the songs (faith and mortality, to name a couple) are vast; but when paired with richly textured orchestral compositions (which build to breathtaking crescendo), it's rock & roll in its most evolved form. Those who choose to critique the work for what its not — a revisiting of Funeral, the band's incomparably brilliant debut album— are missing what's right in front of them: eleven impeccably crafted, epic, elegant and profound songs. While 2007 will likely go down as the year that introduced the first wave of cheap imitations to the indie-rock aesthetic, Arcade Fire continued to operate on a higher plane of existence than its peers.
Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are you the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl). The fact that Hissing Fauna has hardly left my CD player since its release is a testament to the album's attention to detail. Each listen reveals something different. Inescapably catchy, synth-and-guitar-driven "disco sleaze" melodies draw you in on the first few spins; Destroyer's dissonant, profoundly dark and introspective lyrics then hook you on subsequent plays. But eventually, it's the minutiae that keeps you coming back for more — the way extroverted frontman Kevin Barnes draws out each syllable as he croons, "You're just some faggy girl, and I need a lover with soooouuuul power," or pondering what, exactly, it means to "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean."
Blue Scholars, Bayani (Mass Line/Rawkus). The Blue Scholars' song "Back Home," should go down as the political anthem of the decade. The first single from the Seattle hip-hop duo's second record not only serves as a shining example of MC Geologic's lyrical prowess and DJ Sabzi's soulful and rhythmic beats, but the vitriol it directs at the Iraq war is absolutely spot-on. "Fuck a coffin draped in red white and blue/Withdrawal past due," Geo rhymes in a tone that's more pensive than pissed off, "We disgusted with the fact we pay taxes to build tanks, still droppin' one twomp-and-a-half to fill tanks." The diverse pair (Geologic and Sabzi are of Filipino and Iranian descents, respectively) apply their righteous indignation to other topics such as immigration, the WTO riots and de facto segregation, but nothing rings as true as the refrain of "Bring 'em back home, I don't want to have to keep on singin' this song."
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, 100 Days, 100 Nights (Daptone Records). When I first heard this album, it felt like I'd been transported into a scene in Pulp Fiction. Not only would the songs melt perfectly into that film's soundtrack, but like all of Tarantino's work, Jones' music exchanges any sense of time or place for cool charisma. It's postmodernism at its peak: an amalgamation and reinvention of all the great funk, soul and R&B that preceded it (the influences of James Brown and Aretha Franklin are particularly pronounced). The Dap-Kings, Jones' backing band, also sat in for the production of Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, but while both vocalists are stylistic throwbacks, the 51- year-old Jones, who worked as a prison guard before getting her break, has the swagger and pipes make Winehouse look and sound like a British burnout moonlighting as a soul singer.
Devendra Banhart, Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL/Beggars). Perhaps the bushy beard that Banhart sports is really just a mask that allows him to slip easily into the numerous identities he assumes on this album. The stylistic breadth of material covered on Smokey is astonishing: Banhart sings in beautifully accented Venezuelan Spanish over a delicately finger-picked guitar in "Cristobal," offers his takes on samba, doo-wop (in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek love ballad about a Rabbi's daughter in Jerusalem), indie rock, folk and — possibly most impressively, if not unexpectedly — psychedelic rock ("Seahorse"). Though such shape-shifting occasionally causes the album to lack focus, Smokey is Banhart at his innovative and idiosyncratic best.
— Keegan Hamilton
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