Category Archives: Album Reviews

Lo’Jo ‘Fonetiq Flowers’ CD (World Village) 3/5

French roots group Lo’Jo hail from north-west France, but their pioneering brand of world music takes on board multiple influences from North Africa (the two lead female vocalists have Algerian roots) to instrumentation that incorporates the musical traditions of Iran and even Korea. Despite this, the sound is still immediately identifiable as French, and therein lies part of the problem with this latest album, which is overwhelmingly bleak in tone.

The music has a tendency to be wildly eclectic in places, with the emphasis on French lyrics as befitting the French chanson tradition. For non-francophone speakers, this combination of traditional French language lyrics and experimental world beats is likely to confuse and, sadly, there are no obvious songs to these ears that can elevate the band sound to a wider and non-specialist audience. Thus, the dissonant guitar and use of piano on ‘Chabalai’, is pure French chanson, but without a commercial hook. Further on, the slightly futuristic sounding ‘Figurine’ has electronica accompaniment alongside violin and female vocals. It is true to say that the band have sought to diversify by including English lyrics, as on ‘Noisy Flowers’, but this is delivered in a quasi US rap fashion, and with a female chorus that is straight out of a South African township. All wildly eclectic, but will a general audience be enthralled, or bemused by it all?

Lo’Jo are a group who are uncompromising in their ethos and that is to be applauded. This is probably their most reflective album thus far. However, it remains to be seen whether an audience beyond those already committed, will understand and be able to follow the music itself.

Tim Stenhouse

Orchestre Les Mangelepa ‘Last Band Standing’ CD/LP/Dig (Strut) 4/5

East African soukous, influenced by the Congolese rumba, was a regular feature of the 1970s African music scene and those of a certain age will fondly remember Orchestra Super Mazembe. By the mid-1980s, however, a combination of the demise of vinyl, the influx of cheap electronic instrumentation, and the sheer cost of recording as well as keeping a big band going for live performance, all resulted in larger ensembles disappearing.

In recent years, with the rediscovery of cult African bands by DJs and independent labels from Europe and North America, the classic sound of soukous has come back into vogue, and one happy by-product of this has been the re-emergence of Orchestre Les Mangelepa. In their specific case, it was Tom Kazungu who took the helm of the band’s management and a reformed group consequently took up residency in central Nairobi, at the Tents club and Simmers. These live performances in turn stimulated the band to go back into the studios and the scintillating sounds are before you.

With a ten piece band that has no less than three vocalists, a rhythm section comprising two guitarists and bass, plus two additional percussionists, and two horn players plus an extra keyboardist, this is music on a grand scale. Thankfully, in keeping with the original band sound, the production is not overly slick and keeping things simple and allowing the music itself to take care of business was the right policy. At seventy-five minutes for just eight numbers, the individual songs are lengthy with plenty of opportunity for the instrumentalists to take off on an extended rhythm guitar of horn solo and that makes for superb dance-oriented grooves that are seemingly never ending. The opening number, ‘Kanemo’, starts matters off on a busy and dramatic footing with beautiful vocal harmonies that continue throughout, and with a trumpet solo that enters proceedings six minutes in. Intimate guitar work and a gentle intro leads into some shuffling percussion work on ‘Suzanna’, with fine support from the horns. A delicious mid-tempo groove is created on, ‘Maindusa’, and this formation, which is in fact a group that split from the original band (a frequent occurrence in all forms of Congolese music), are now undertaking a world tour, having first travelled around Uganda and Malawi. Watch out for the UK leg of this tour which is due in spring 2018. Hopefully, some of the original albums will be re-issued at some later stage.

Tim Stenhouse

Blind Boys Of Alabama ‘Almost Home’ CD-R/DIG (BBOA) 5/5

In the seven decades since the Blind Boys of Alabama first began singing together, America has witnessed a World War, the civil rights movement, and the Summer of Love; the moon landing, Vietnam, and the fall of the Berlin Wall; JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X; the invention of the jukebox, the atomic bomb, and the internet. Through it all, the Blind Boys’ music has not only endured, but thrived, helping both to define the sound of the American south and to push it forward through the 20th century and well on into the 21st. Praised by NPR as “pioneers”, the group has transcended barriers of race and genre to become one of the most acclaimed and celebrated groups in modern music. From the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, where the original members met as children, all the way to The White House – where they’ve performed for three different presidents – the band’s story is, in many ways, America’s story, and that story is at the heart of their emotional new album, ‘Almost Home’.

Recorded over four different sessions helmed by four different GRAMMY-winning producers in four different cities, ‘Almost Home’ recounts the band’s remarkable journey, primarily through original songs written for them by an outstanding collection of artists including Valerie June, the North Mississippi Allstars, Phil Cook, John Leventhal, Marc Cohn, and Ruthie Foster among others. The record is the band’s first in three years, following on the heels of 2014’s ‘Talkin’ Christmas!’ with Taj Mahal and their 2013 collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, ‘I’ll Find A Way’, and it sees them picking up right where they left off, blending the sacred and secular, the traditional and innovative, the past and present.

‘Almost Home’ grew out of the recognition that the band’s original lineup is down to just two remaining survivors: long-time group leader, Clarence Fountain, and current leader Jimmy Carter. Both men were born in Alabama during the Great Depression, and while Carter is still active and regularly touring with the group, Fountain’s health precludes him from traveling much these days, though he does appear on the album.

“These men were both raised as blind, African American males in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, and they were sent to a school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms or mops for a living”, says Blind Boys’ manager Charles Driebe. “But they’ve transcended all that. The arc of their lives and of the band reflects the arc of a lot of changes in American society, and we wanted to find a way to capture their experiences in songs.”

The above is taken from the group’s website and I would ask you to revisit and read on, it’s an exhilarating ride. And so to the music… traditional southern gospel influenced soul, including a total masterpiece in ‘Singing Brings Us Closer’, black, slow and full of emotion and passion, you just know these guys mean every word and with a wonderful big production job, I’ve got a handful of 45’s and long players and it seems like groups like this have been with me all my adult life, this is history in the making, the times we are living in are not producing groups like this anymore and we must lift up our heads and open our ears and embrace this music before it disappears for ever, I’m listening to the title track and it’s as poignant as ever, they’re on their way back home to Alabama, they’re “Almost Home”. Wonderful. Simply wonderful.

Brian Goucher

Calvin Richardson ‘All Or Nothing’ CD/DIG (Shanachie) 5/5

Listen, this is produced by the legendary Willie Clayton so you gotta pay attention, too right you have, because for the most part this is the finest sounding Calvin Richardson we have ever heard. He’s been in this game for some 20 years but he ain’t sounded like this before, if you need proof go straight to the album ender ‘Holding On/Can’t Let Go’, a stunning head-nodding floater in which Richardson really does let go vocally.

The album kicks off with what might be some folks dancer of the year, the album title track sounds very R Kelly influenced but with enough subtle touches and quality vocals to make hold its own – love the stabbing strings, and the rhythm just takes your body over. Then we have Willie Clayton at his best in the shape of ‘The Only One’, a lovely down-tempo stepper that could have graced any Willie Clayton album over the past 10 years. The very classy southern inspired ‘Treat Her Right’ will have you thinking Bobby Womack from the opening monologue as it drifts into the sheer beauty that is modern day balladry. Easily the finest track on the album and one that’s on repeat play here at home.

Next up we move into ‘I Love The Way’, which continues the soul-full feel of what’s gone before, moving effortlessly into the sheer string laden beauty that is ‘Breaking Down Inside’ with more pain and suffering going on than you can shake a big stick at, and you can hear it vocally. Is this the best Calvin Richardson we’ve heard to date? Well the quality is maintained in the meandering ballad, ‘Make Up Love’, which is growing in stature here by the hour. I could bang the drum about this classy soul album for ages but just go out and buy it, likely indeed to be in my top 10 albums of the year (if I bother to do a list). Simply stunning.

Brian Goucher

Antibalas ‘Where the Gods are in Peace’ LP/CD/DIG (Daptone) 3/5

Brooklyn-based Afro-Beat specialists, Antibalas, make a brave attempt at expanding their sound with three lengthy cuts, ranging between nine and fifteen minutes, that then sub-divide into separate movements. This is more an extended EP than a full blown album and weighs in at just thirty-five minutes. An obvious contender for single release is the opener, ‘Gold Rush’, and the inclusion of wah-wah guitar, funky clavinet and percussion makes this an instantly danceable number and one that should find favour with DJs.

The music loses its direction somewhat on the three part movement, ‘Tombstone’, with Afro-vocal chants giving way to heavy percussion, before guests Zap Mama enter in the second movement alongside a crescendo of sound effects. At times, the non-stop percussion does tend to grate, and the listener is left wondering how it all fits together as a cohesive whole.

If the music is atmospheric throughout, there is nonetheless a greater need to explain in simple terms to the listener what the narrative is and such is the complexity of the story line that one loses sight of the underlying theme of an ‘Afro-Western Trilogy’. Quite possibly, this is best sampled in a live context. Antibalas have served as a backing band for tribute shows devoted to the music of David Byrne and Talking Heads, Aretha Franklin and Paul Simon.

Tim Stenhouse

Brenda Holloway ‘Spellbound: Rare and Unreleased Motown Gems’ 2CD (SoulMusic) 4/5

One of the finest female vocalists ever to grace the label, Brenda Holloway really should have been a far bigger star. It was the subject of much press rumour and speculation that the singer was a serious rival to Diana Ross and others for Berry Gordy’s affection between 1963 and 1966. Holloway gave the Motown boss a clear cut ultimatum that left him in no doubt: ‘Either I sing or I’m your mistress, but it is one or the other’. Gordy signed her up and housed her at his parents.

While the major hits such as, ‘Every little bit hurts’, ‘When I’m gone’ and, ‘Just look what you’ve done’, are all available elsewhere, this de facto mini anthology does the non-negligible service of offering up numerous unreleased songs. In spite of being a prolific singer during this period with over a hundred songs finding their way onto a plethora of re-issues, the performances here are of a universally high standard and one wonders why some were never issued at the time ,especially songs of the calibre of, ‘I’m spellbound’, ‘What good am I without you’, and ‘Don’t compare me with her’. Indeed, almost the total output on the second CD has previously been left on the tape shelves seemingly for posterity. Brenda Holloway was not a native of Detroit, born and raised in Watts, Los Angeles, but her voice was pure Motown. Compiled by Motown music aficionado Paul Nixon and with lengthy sleeve notes from noted UK Motown fanatic and former Blues and Soul writer Sharon Davis, this is a compilation that will appeal to both completists and those coming to the music of Brenda Holloway for the very first time.

Tim Stenhouse

Nico Wayne Toussaint ‘Plays James Cotton’ (Dixiefrog) 4/5

James Cotton was a Chicago and Delta blues musician who achieved a peak of popularity in the 1970s when he was already in his forties and came to fame, deputising for harmonica player Little Walter in Muddy Water’s band. Indeed, it was Cotton who suggested to Muddy that he add a new song to his repertoire: ‘Got My Mojo Working’. This became his signature tune. Cotton featured on a classic three-volume set from the 1960s, ‘Chicago Blues Today!’.

Taking an eight month break from music altogether in French Guyana, vocalist and harmonica player Nico Wayne Toussaint came back duly refreshed and sufficiently enthused to devote an album to the music and spirit of James Cotton, even though just five of the thirteen songs are actually composed by Cotton. Surrounded by an eight piece French band with vocalist Boney Field on hand, the music has a live audience feel (though this may actually have been added). Toussaint excels on the mid-tempo ‘Hard Time Blues’, with lovely clipped guitar work and New Orleans style piano from David Maxwell. In fact soul-blues of the New Orleans variety surfaces once more on ‘Hot ‘n’ Cold’, with fine collective harmonies. More closely in keeping with Cotton is the fast-paced ‘Rocket 88’, with a catchy guitar riff.

Bilingual English and French sleeve notes and the usual attention to detail with an illustrative pull out gatefold sleeve.

Tim Stenhouse

Brian Owens ‘Soul of Cash’ LP/DIG (Ada Cole/Purpose Music Group) 4/5

Whilst researching this fabulous album I stumbled over an excellent informative review by Brenda Nelson-Strauss which you can read on the Black Grooves site. For my part I’m happy to review it from a soul boy’s point of view. First up, any review of a black soul man covering Johnnie Cash music isn’t going to be an easy sell, I’ve never heard a JC track that has ever registered any where in my head, so like some of you, I’ll be approaching this album as a Brian Owens album, having said that most soul boys have Clarence Carter, Joe Tex, Joe Simon, Eddie Hinton music in there collections, all of these guys and more were always happy with Country Music influences in their music and were all great story teller’s in their own right. You may remember I reviewed the utterly stunning “Beautiful Day” album here on UK Vibe and recently at the Soul4Real Weekender in Bilbao Spain I spun the title track at the welcome party which got a very positive, healthy response.

Owens, the son of preacher out of Ferguson, Missouri had stumbled over the music of Cash via TV. There are some truly fine moments on here, like ‘Walk The Line’, a bass driven, horn laden dancer that could quite easily do the business on a dance floor near you. His version of ‘Cry Cry Cry’ is very much more to my taste, a guitar driven, head nodding ballad which seeps into your head, very Stax/Atlantic sounding. Now then, ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ is a monster crossover dancer with a huge potential, should it find its way onto soul radio. I went off and listened to the original and I have to say this is easily the better version, which may not sit too cosy with Country Music enthusiasts as it appears to be an anthem in that genre. ‘Long Black Veil’ is a thinking man’s lumbering ballad with deft musicianship which is kept to the very minimum. ‘Man in Black’ is a full-on retro sounding on-the-four’s dancer which sounds so so good, it’s not mock Motown but it ain’t a million miles away, love the gentle horns caressing the percussion, some fabulous backing from The Vaughn’s who really do get to let you know they are there, utterly superb.

The top track on here is an Owens original which is steeped in Doo Wop but with a country sounding pedal steel guitar. The song tells us that there ain’t that much of gap between real country and soul music, with one line standing tall “We all sing the blues” with vocals shared between Owens, Rissi Palmer and Robert Randolph. An album that is essential in my world, and then some, and available on Vinyl and digital download.

Brian Goucher

Bobby Reed & The Surpize Band CD/DIG (Private Press) 3/5

Let’s get the negatives out of the way, I know very few people who claim to be into soul music who will be able to embrace this quite superb long player, you see it’s the blues, RnB, Soul and Jazz with occasional Doo Wop inflections, big band too, it’s got the bloody lot. Take the deep soul opus, ‘Worried Dream’, not a horn in sight but it has one heavy lead guitar for company, with Reed singing like his life depends on it. Straight then to the mellow Doo Wop of ‘I’m Going Back’, with its ever present tinkling ivories, again he’s straining at the leash telling his woman he’s going back to what he used to do. The track that’s crept up on the outside rail is the heavenly blues of ‘Be With Me’. Drenched in horns, bass lead guitar and the kind of vocal we got used to from BB King.

There are a couple of serious rocking dancers on here too, which will take a couple of plays to sink in, Jazzy, Bluesy with a touch of Soul, almost a big band sound, they sound great loud. Of course the musicianship is second to none and you would expect that with over 50 years experience in the business. The mid tempo, ‘Why Did You Have To Lie’, is another grower, listen if your looking for something a tad different but still want that black vocal then grab a listen, you won’t be disappointed.

I wonder if he’s the same singer that sang ‘The Time is Right For Love’. If you get to read this Bobby let me know.

Brian Goucher

Christian McBride Big Band ‘Bringin’ It’ 2LP/CD/DIG (Mack Avenue) 5/5

Better known as a virtuoso bassist who has performed with everyone from Kenny Garrett to Diana Krall, Christian McBride the arranger and big band leader comes of age on this superb outing that name checks the modernist greats of the 1960s, but adds something fresh into the mix and demonstrates a true flair for adventurous larger ensemble performance. Among a host of young musicians, the participation of altoist Steve Wilson, tenorist Ron Blake and the vocals of Melissa Walker make this a special treat. Stylistically, this big band owes a debt of gratitude to the pioneering work of the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis band, and it takes just as many chances in terms of the repertoire and treatment.

DJs have immediately picked up on the delicious reading of Wes Montgomery’s ‘Full House’, and Rodney Jones on guitar does a fine job of communicating the vibrancy of the original with soul-jazz heaven guaranteed on a full swinging interpretation. This writer has his own favourite in a sumptuous take on McCoy Tyner’s opus, ‘Sahara’, and the free from intro, then develops into an expansive modal piece with lengthy brass soloing and some fine flute work from Wilson. That modal feel is continued on piano on the ballad ‘I Thought About You’, with a lovely restrained trumpet solo from Brandon Lee. Vocalist Melissa Walker impresses on ‘Upside Down’, not the Chic organisation classic for Diana Ross, but rather a lively Latin-influenced number where Walker comes across as a composite of Carmen Lundy and Sarah Vaughan, but with just enough to differentiate her voice.

Baptist church spirit overwhelms the listener on hearing ‘Used Ta’ Could’, and this is skilfully evoked by use of hand claps and solo saxophone, with Lalo Schifrin’s masterful arrangements possibly influencing McBride here. Elsewhere, crisp Basie-esque horn arrangements hint at a band leader who has closely studied the masters, but is now fully ready to make his own imprint on the art of big band jazz.

Quite simply one of the most enjoyable new jazz albums of the year and every repeated listen yields new pleasures.

Tim Stenhouse