Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Lenny Kravitz: Black And White America

I've been listening to some of the CDs that have been piled on my desktop for a while, and Lenny Kravitz's "Black And White America" rose to the top of the pile recently. I'm glad it did.

First off, I'm a fan. I love Lenny; have ever since "Mama Said". I admire his ability to synthesize hard rock and soul groove into an amalgam that very few others have ever succeeded in creating. Not everything he's done has been a slam-dunk (2004's "Baptism" is particularly off the mark), but he's never let a misfire keep him down.

Far as I'm concerned, "Black And White America" is a masterpiece. First up is the title track, which essentially says "Stop dreaming about the day when the races are friends - it's already here, if you'll open your eyes." I find this refreshing when compared to the message of much of today's R&B, which seems intent on widening the racial divide rather than healing it."Life Ain't Ever Been Better Than It Is Now" reinforces the positive vibes with a message of thankfulness overlaid by one of L.K.'s patented guitar-driven grooves. "Rock Star City Life" is another relentless track that stands with any of Lenny's best. A couple of things are formulaic; there's a dance track with Jay Z. rapping about bumping and grinding (yawn). "Sunflower" is a retro-Disco throwback, complete with cowbell and penny-whistle -- not quite as retro as Jamiroquai, but you get the idea.Overall though, the disc is a stone winner.

If I have one complaint about this album, it's that it's too long. Yes, I know - I'm complaining about getting too much for my money; slap me now. But at 66+ minutes, too much of a good thing can be too much -- especially when the slow songs ("Dream", "Push") are loaded at the end.

But no complaints: put it on, turn it up, and let the groove take you. That's what Lenny's always been about, and this is a fine addition to an amazing lifetime of albums. Shame it didn't get played on the radio (but that says more about the state of today's radio than about Lenny). Listen, lather, repeat.

For Further Research:

Monday, May 13, 2013

Booker T. Jones: The Road From Memphis

Even if you don't know anything about Memphis soul, you've heard of Booker T. and the M.G.s -- if only via their monster hit "Green Onions", still a staple on oldies radio. Although that's the only cut that gets on the radio these days, the M.G.s had multiple big instrumental hits in the 60's and 70's: "Time is Tight", "Hang 'Em High", "Hip Hug-Her", "Soul Dressing" and more. Besides which, they were the house band for Memphis' legendary Stax Records label, the home of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes and many more black artists who left an indelible mark on soul music - and most all of whose records felt the stamp of Booker T. Jones and his Hammond B3.

Although the star of Memphis soul waned, Booker T. never went away. He cut a number of records for A&M in the 70's, launched an M.G.s comeback with Columbia in the 90's, and continues recording; his latest, "The Road From Memphis", contains a return to roots and some auto-biographical songs that are quite welcome and pleasingly organic in this day of highly-computerized music.

Booker's B3 is front-and-center, of course. There's a classic Memphis groove that insinuates itself everywhere. I love the title cut, "Walking Papers," and "Rent Party", a minor-key affair that seems to underscore the fact that this is one party that's not truly a celebration, and "Representing Memphis", a Southern-fried groove featuring a duet between one of my favorite soul shouters, Sharon Jones (of the Dap-Tones), and Matt Berninger, frontman for Cincinnati's The National. And there's also "Down in Memphis", on which Booker T. himself sings about coming up in the poor South and the way it was back then.

This is a good disc, not a great one. But for fans of Memphis Soul Stew there's a lot to like here. Booker rides the classic Stax vibe while bringing the mood into the present -- it's not a nostalgia trip, but it's got enough of that savory, meaty funk to take you back. Good stuff - I'm looking forward to what he does next.

For Further Research
  • Booker T.'s page on the Stax Museum Website
  • The legendary Hammond B3 organ was an integral part of the Sound of the Sixties. It showed up everywhere, from Abbey Road to Electric Lady Studios to the Capitol Tower. Would you believe there's a documentary about it? Check it out here. (I grew up playing a B1 myself.)
  • Live from the Sixties: Booker T. & the M.G.s perform "Green Onions" live in Europe on the 1967 Stax-Volt Tour. Dan Penn on killer lead guitar!
  • Booker T. plays "Down In Memphis" on Daryl Hall's "Live From Daryl's House" with Daryl duetting.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Foghat: Fool For The City

Sometimes, hard rock albums from the '70s don't hold up well. I'm sure you've had the experience of throwing on an album you haven't heard in years; something you had fond memories of in high school or college, but 25 years later (or so), doesn't have the charm it once did -- think Uriah Heep, or maybe Iron Maiden.

It's been about that long since I've listened to Foghat's "Fool For The City", which came out in 1975. When I was in high school, about every other guy wore a "Fool For The City" t-shirt; the album was that popular. And why not? It was a flat-out blues rocker, with plenty of AM and FM radio hits.

Foghat, for those that don't know, was built on the ashes of Savoy Brown, the legendary UK blues group of the '60s. Although the Savoys were universally beloved, they never achieved Top 40 success in the States - a situation Foghat would definitely remedy.

I half expected the disc to bore me when I slipped it on, but once the needle hit the groove it was immediately apparent that "Fool" was not one of those albums that was an artifact of a diminished memory. Cut in '75, pretty much at the peak of Foghat's popularity, it's got the AOR rocker title cut, the AM Top 40 hit "Slow Ride" (in an extended, eight-plus-minute version you never heard on the radio), and a fantastic cover of Robert Johnson's classic "Terraplane Blues" that scorches Side 2. And there's also a preview of things to come: a (lead singer) Dave Peverett co-penned number, "Take It Or Leave It", which closes out the album with a taste of the sound that would win Foghat many more fans a couple of years later.

So when all's said and done I'm pleased and mildly excited to find that this Lp is just as fun and vital now as it was back in the day. Worth grabbing if you find a stray copy, for sure.

For Further Research: