Artist: Beastie Boys
CD Name: "To the Five Boroughs"
Record Label: Capitol
Artist Site: Beastie Boys
The Beastie Boys newest release is a self-professed, "love letter to New York City." The cover art is festooned with a pencil sketch of the Empire City's skyline. They rap with strong New Yawk accents and curse a blue streak in your face, like those stereotyped Eastern tough guys you see on TV. They also share a proclivity with fellow Manhattanite Walt Whitman and embrace the diversity of the metropolis in which they grew up in and live. "Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten/from the Battery to the top of Manhattan/Asian, Middle-Eastern, and Latin/black, white New York, you make it happen," they proclaim on "An Open Letter to NYC." They continually rap about the particular racial, social, and ethnic mixture of Gotham City life.
The Boys (Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D) also espouse the Whitmanian philosophy of whatever is a part of them is a part of us all. They cite their particular feelings and experiences and presume these are part of our collective gestalt. For example, Ad-Rock makes several references to his Hebrew identity, in terms of food (references to bagels, matzoh¸ challah bread, and his grandmother's kugel) and in more explicit ways (i.e. "I'm a funky-ass Jew"). Like the old gray poet, Ad-Rock's boasting is meant to be inclusive (we are all different in our own way, and that's good) rather than bigoted (I am better than you). As The Boys were once victims of a nasty anti-Semitic incident in England, and the enemies of Israel and America seem more dangerous than a decade ago, Ad-Rock fronting his heritage reveals a certain amount of chutzpah.
The Boys' pride in a multicultural America inspires them to critique the current Washington administration's foreign policy. In other words, if America is a nation of nations, why are we so hostile to other countries, "Maybe it's time we impeach Tex/and the military muscle he wants to flex/By the time Bush is done, what will be left?" they rap. Although lyrics like these make this The Boys most overtly political disc, most of the songs concern life's joys instead of world problems.
Musically, the Boys employ the Old Skool sonics that often borrow the electronic sounds of obsolete video games and such to create tight, scratchy rhythms that rock. Even their references to popular culture are purposely dated (i.e. Riuniti on ice, Fred Sanford, George Whipple, Herman Munster, etc.) to create a timeless effect. Somehow, the daring pioneers of so many Hip Hop styles in the past refusal to pander to current fads makes their sound fresh. The disc is simultaneously retro and contemporary through its classicism, like Tony Bennett singing Frank Sinatra songs.
It's been six years since the Boys put out a record. "To the Five Boroughs" shows that group members have wizened with age, but that their talents haven't deteriorated. The album opened at number one on the Billboard charts, selling over 325,000 copies in its first week of release. This reveals just how hungry their fans were for some new Beastie raps. The high quality of the music suggests this disc has staying power and just may be the soundtrack to the summer of 2004.
Artist: Richie Havens
CDName: "Grace of the Sun"
Record Label: Stormy Forest
Artist Site: Richie Havens
Richie Havens has always had an old man's voice that suggests ancient wisdom. On his early sixties folk-jazz recordings, Havens seemed to sing primordial mantras more than lyrics, an effect abetted by his Eastern-influenced acoustic guitar playing. By the time he got to Woodstock, Havens was able to incorporate sound and meaning together in a distinctive expressive style that relied on a minimum of language. Just by emphatically repeating a word or phrase (like "freedom" or "clap your hands"), Havens magically brought the audience together like a shaman. The movie and soundtrack to Woodstock made him a star.
During the thirty-plus years that followed, Havens recorded a mixed bag of material. During the seventies he became known as one of the best interpreters of The Beatles. His versions of "Lady Madonna" and "Here Comes the Sun" were staples of FM adult contemporary radio programming. Havens's star status faded during the eighties and his career floundered during the nineties. But then lo and behold, he made a comeback during the 21st century and released what might have been the finest album of his career, Wishing Well. While the album contained a few choice covers (a raga rendition of Pink Floyd's "On the Turning Away" and a slowed down, smoldering version of Gary Wright's "Love is Alive") the majority of the songs were captivating spiritual and cerebral self-penned compositions. Havens voice may not have aged, but his songs seemed to have gained an assured maturity.
Happily, Havens continued right where he left off on his latest album Grace of the Sun. The disc contains a few select versions of other people's tunes, including an ethereal cover of Fred Neil's mystical "Red Flowers," a droll, dreamlike rendition of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," and a fast-paced interpretation of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." but Havens's original tunes steal the show. He sings of natural objects (i.e. the sun, rain, stones) and activities (i.e. waking, breathing) as if they were supernatural signs of a transcendent world. "There is only one truth/Alive in the sky/Isn't that enough proof/We need not know why/We are all we live for/Whenever we decide," he sings enigmatically in the title song. With Zen-like wisdom, Havens declares what we don't know proves what we already, instinctually understand-there is something greater than us all, there is nothing greater than ourselves.
Havens percussive guitar strumming lends urgency to the music. He's accompanied by a host of Eastern and Western strings and drums: sitar, slide guitar, congas, bongos, tabla, fretless bass, cello, riqq, shakers, kanun, and such. Havens's tapping left foot also adds the sound of a bass drum to the tunes as he combines the mélange of music into a holistic world groove. The infectious rhythms help free the mind as well as move the body. This is clearly evident in the disc's one instrumental, the spiritual bop "Dusk."
The music's strongest hook, however, is Havens's gruff yet sweet vocals. It endows the lyrics with the patina of the authority of experience. Granted, he sung that way as a young man, but now it seems earned and poignant. It's one thing for a young man to say life is worth living, and one can change the world. An old man saying this has an entirely different connotation. Havens's hopeful vision suggests staying around for the future might just be fun..
Artist: Drive By Truckers
CD Name: The Dirty South
Record Label: New West
Artist Site: Drive By Truckers
In a time when America has become increasingly homogenized, when the same strip malls of the same fast food joints and cheap formula restaurants lead into every city from Portland, Maine to Portland Oregon and everywhere in between, it's important to remember there are still regional differences that matter. The Drive-By Truckers wear their Southern heritage with pride, not in some dumb-ass Redneck way, but by self-consciously showing their musical roots on their latest release, The Dirty South. DBT recorded the disc in the famed historic Muscle Shoals, Alabama recording studio (where Patterson Hood's father David once worked as a session musician), composed songs in tribute to the band's Southern musical heroes, such as Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips ("Carl Perkins's Cadillac"), Rick Danko and Richard Manuel ("Danko/Manuel"), and created tunes about the local heroes and zeroes with whom they grew up in Dixie ("The Sands of Iwo Jima," "Daddy's Cup," "Where the Devil Don't Stay,") .
The title of the new album has at least two meanings. It's called The Dirty South because the songs examine the seamy side of life below the Mason-Dixon line and because the term Dirty South already refers to a popular type of Gangsta Rap music (i.e. Ludacris, Outkast, Nappy Roots, Lil' Flip, Nelly). The Drive-By Truckers imply that the rural police killers ("Cottonseed"), small town drug dealers ("Puttin' People on the Moon"), and tough as nails criminals ("Boys from Alabama") the group sings about are as nasty as any of the urban evildoers that populate modern Hip Hop tales. That said, DBT are true chivalrous Southern gentlemen. There's not a bitch or ho to be found, and when a lawman like Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame, makes an outlaw's daughter cry, well then Pusser deserves to die ("The Buford Stick").
DBT also named the disc The Dirty South because the raucous sound of the music. Think of the gritty Southern country blues garage rock of early Lynyrd Skynyrd (i.e. Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, Smokes) as inspiration. Brad Morgan doesn't just play the drums, he hammers them while Shonna Tucker pounds the bass line while a hard and heavy three-guitar attack that features Hood, Mike Cooley, Jason Isbel swirls over, around, and through the music. The pure energy overwhelms the listener's body, but that's not all. All three guitar players also write and sing damn good story songs that capture the mind as well. The narrator's of DBT's songs may be on the other side of success, but they know how they are not stupid. They know how they got there and they're not about to apologize or take them blame for a life they didn't live.
Consider the legendary hero of "The Day John Henry Died." Everyone knows the story of the steel-drivin' man who dies after competing with the new jackhammer technology, but DBT also acknowledge that there ain't much else a man who can't even write his name can do and machines don't give the bosses no trouble. It's more than a story about man versus progress; it's a complex tale about the value of a human life versus the power of greed. The jackhammer doesn't have a wife and kids and John Henry probably was an asshole. None of it matters anyhow, because John Henry died and the machinery was bound to take the place of human labor. That doesn't make the story less sad or compelling, anymore than that of the tale of any other poor soul out there trying to get by in a world not of one's own making.
Artist: Willie Nelson
CD Name: Live at Billy Bob's Texas
Record Label: Smith Music Group
Artist Site: Willie Nelson
I've seen some strange things happen at Willie Nelson concerts. I once saw a husky, middle-aged man in bib overalls stand up and pour a pint of whiskey over his seated gray-haired mother, who raised her right fist in the air and shouted "Wa-hoo" as Willie sang "Whiskey River." I saw a man waving a large American flag jump from a second floor balcony during the middle of Willie singing "Me and Paul." The crowd broke his fall and the man seemed unharmed as security led him away. But there are several things one can always be sure of at a Willie show; that he is going to play long and hard, that he's going to sing several of his most famous self-penned, crowd-pleasing songs like "Crazy, "Night Life," and "Funny How Time Slips Away," that he'll perform rousing renditions of country & western classics by artists like Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell as well as pop standards from the great American songbook like Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind, and that the crowd will leave sated and happy.
Live at Billy Bob's Texas captures the 70-year-old Willie at the self-proclaimed "World's Largest Honky Tonk." Ably backed by his long-time road band, which features his sister Bobbie on piano, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Jody Payne on guitar, and Paul English on drums, Willie romps his way through his customary set material with gusto. As usual, Willie offers very little stage patter, only thanking the audience for its applause or briefly introducing a song, and plows through his repertoire like a corn farmer cultivating a field on a crisp, spring morning. Willie rips through all the aforementioned songs and many other memorable cuts including Merle Haggard's "Working Man's Blues" and Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make it Through the Night" on his latest disc. Willie somehow makes each song his own through his inimitable vocal phrasing and guitar picking techniques.
Willie has become an American icon, recognizable for his long pigtails and bandanna. He is familiar to folks who know his face from popular culture references (i.e. he's visage has been featured in everything from Austin Power's movies to television cartoon shows like "King of the Hill)" more than his music. He's also received just about every major music tribute there is, from Grammy and Country Music Association awards to Presidential honors. Willie could very easily rest on his laurels and quit life on the road, but that wouldn't be Willie. He's still out there regularly touring the country with his band by bus. He plays hundreds of gigs a year and takes pride in giving everyone his or her money's worth. This is what makes Live at Billy Bob's Texas such a valuable document, because it captures Willie doing what he does best-performing before a large crowd of screaming fans. He ends his set in the usual manner, by singing "On the Road Again." This is Willie's way of reminding the audience that he's a real troubadour, going from place to place to make an honest living.
Live at Billy Bob's Texas is also available as a DVD, which gives the viewer a first row seat at a Willie concert. While it's fun to watch, the audio performances offer plenty of entertainment to the listener. I highly recommend the CD as a good traveling companion to play in your car. Willie knows how to make going down the road into a pleasurable experience.
Artist: Gerald Levert
CD Name: Do I Speak for the World?
Record Label: Atlantic
Artist Site: Gerald Levert
Critics have frequently compared Gerald Levert to the late, great Marvin Gaye because of the way in which both singers soulfully blend together the sacred and profane in terms of their vocal styles and lyrical concerns. Both men use their rich, gospel-inflected, baritone voices to sing of love as both a divine gift and an earthly pleasure. Levert’s latest release, Do I Speak for the World, self-consciously shows another connection between the two talents. “I always wanted to do a What’s Going On type of album,” Levert said about his newest disc in reference to Gaye’s classic seventies, protest record about the ills of world. Like Gaye, Levert observes the society around him and finds hope and sorrow in everyday life. Levert asks if he speaks for the world, and he does, by focusing on the particulars of black life in terms of the personal and the political. He sings and speaks about everything from social activism to family values to romantic love without ever losing sense of his core identity as a black man in America today.
On song after song Levert makes everything from his feelings on weapons of mass destruction to his love of single mothers and fatherless children seem, well, sexy. His revolutionary call for a new world comes from an instinctual, rather than intellectual critique. He sees and weighs the world and finds it wanting. However, none of that would matter much if like Gaye, Levert wasn’t such a wonderful crooner. Levert’s ardent, smoky and expressive vocals endow his concerns with a combination of strength and tenderness, like a fist in a velvet glove. His voice carries the conviction and compassion of one who is experienced.
The disc's title comes from the words to Appalachian fiddler Dirk Powell's lively "Lulu Gal." Cellist Eggleston swiftly bows the tune about "being in the pen with rough and rowdy men" as the rest of the band build into a high gear. O'Donovan's percussive chorus of "Hop High" keeps the energy flowing. On the other end of the tempo spectrum comes Bluesman Robert Johnson's slow ditty "Last Fair Deal Gone Done." DeMario's double-bass adds a moaning quality to the performance in counterpoint to Eggleston's melodious cello.
This is not only true of such sweet interludes like his call to live in harmony, “Show You How to Love,” but also on his more dramatic set pieces like the faux family reunion “Click a Glass.” The slow, easy pace of the latter tune both helps create a nostalgic picture of the old days contrasted with the harshness of present social ills and conveys the sense that for the young, these are their gold old days. “The more things change/the more they stay the same/you’re never to old to appreciate/the people who love you,” Levert sings appropriately, threading his vocals between the sound effects of a party, snippets of conversations, and a slow dance jazz-rhythm tempo. Some of the instrumental backing on this tune purposely evokes the instrumentation behind Gaye’s crooning on the song “What’s Going On,” adding another layer of meaning. Gaye found that life in the seventies had become a lot more mean-spirited and ugly then when he was growing up in the fifties. Levert finds the world has become an even worse place during the past three decades, so that things like love and family have become even more important.
Maybe that’s what makes the pure love songs here seem so intense. Levert’s voice passionately smolders on the R&B style ballads “Lay U Down (Make it Alright),” “So What?” “One Million Times,” and “It Was What it Was.” The mixing of tunes that deals with private feelings and with those of a political nature complement each other. One can only change the world through practicing love. A world without love is not worth living in. Levert indicates that saving the world can be a very sexy thing to do.