Thursday, September 06, 2018

Aren't You A Little Old For This, Overdue Downloading Part 1--Terry Ware, J. Cole, Kamasi Washington, Janelle Monae and Nalani & Sarina

Aren’t You a Little Old For This?, Terry “Buffalo” Ware (OkieMotion Records) As with his instrumental records, Ware's latest may be counted on to provide surprising hooks and clean lines that compel one play after another. Maybe it’s the carefree attitude, bright chords and bouncing beat of opener “Fine, Fine Day” that makes the darkness that follows so surprising. It deepens with each listen. Even that song hints at the wind and rain that will pour throughout. Featuring the gorgeously upbeat but haunted, “Over My Shoulder,” the album’s first “side” struggles with hard-won wisdom filled with contradictions, finally descending to the global warming simmer of the downright apocalyptic “Late December.” “Side Two” feels considerably more hopeful, but it’s the kind of everyday, small hope that comes with each dawn—the satisfied yearnings of the guitar on “Laura" and the promise of reward that lies just past the battles in “Going Down the Other Side” and “Coming Out of Nowhere.” With its menacing garage spiral of sound, “Price to Pay,” states the struggle behind everything here—“A hole in your heart, it never goes away/A pocket full of nothing, but still you got a price to pay.” The storms never let up, but the music provides more than a little shelter.

KOD, J. Cole (Dreamville/ROC Nation) For a long time, the concept of a “conscious rapper” was problematic, implicitly setting itself close to a bourgeois sensibility rejecting the music most people loved. Often the music itself seemed pleasant and non-committal, too, unlike the visceral compulsions of gangsta and trap. Like the Southern complement to Kendrick Lamar that he is, J. Cole uses his fifth album to embrace a lean, trap sensibility that’s fighting hand to hand with the desire to give up, in other words, true to the form. After all, this is a late-night, hard hitting conversation. Cole counsels all kinds of dangers—delusions and poisons and dead-end reasoning, but he doesn’t do it from one-up, not from on high. He’s pleading with his brother and his sister and, ultimately, himself. Oh, to keep the conversation going, these beats and keys and the lyrical refrains all hook and catch and pull you straight through, over and over again.

Heaven and Earth, Kamasi Washington (Young Turks) This album pretends to be shorter than 2015's three hour The Epic by concealing another 40 minutes in a third disc, which includes welcome covers of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and "Ooh Child." That said, the Earth first then Heaven sides do stand as a mind-blowing whole. The album opener and closer tell the story broadly, a cover of the theme music to Bruce Lee's Fists of Fury promising a fight for justice ahead and the last cut asking if I fight for you, will you sing? That's the mission here, not just any struggle, but a vision of humanity unleashed. It takes countless forms (because any way you might add it up, you can listen from another angle and list the changes differently). While sax solos abound, this album is really about the orchestration of one musical universe after another. A shimmering example of the infinity in an idea, "One of One," takes a two-dozen-note bass figure, a salsa line, and bats it around for ten minutes' worth of possibilities, giving the sense it could go on forever. Solo sax dances ecstatically over that bass, driving the piece to what could be a closing crescendo before breaking down and stoking it from another direction. Trumpet, as only trumpet can, heralds another crescendo before trumpet and sax rejoin, the whole band bouncing hard on those bass notes until they find a resolution.

Another wonderful cut, the only video yet, "Street Fighter Mas"--

The Circle, Nalani & Sarina (Telepathy) These young singer/songwriters share a belief in music that sometimes feels like a thing of the past. Of course, in one sense, it is... firmly rooted there at least. Something like 50,000 years of prehistory documents musical instruments. Of course, those instruments brought us together and helped build the best of what we have today. Nalani & Sarina aren't done building. Sure, the rock and roll generation and the hip hop generation look backwards at a moment when they thought they'd discovered the keys to the universe, but that doesn't mean those keys are gone. When the music industry dies and desperate entrepreneurs completely take over the radio turning YouTube talent into the latest soda pop, artists like Nalani & Sarina will insist the essence of music radiates from the depths of the human spirit and offers visions of community and possibility far beyond the blinkered world that tries to hem it in.

Four albums deep, this New Jersey duo shows that commitment every time out. This latest album paints a portrait of a generation that's been sold a very limited idea of what's possible and rails against it with superb songs like "Young and Inexperienced," "Welcome to the Rest of Your Life" and "Coming for You." The final song, "Tomorrow and Yesterday" is a heartbreaking illustration of the eternity carried by a song, but "Pretty Lies" sets up the central challenge, to live for real whatever the cost.

I find the video the duo made for the song especially poignant, two girls against the world, a big old world snarling in reaction. What better testimony to the power of the music than the strength they radiate against all odds?

Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae (Bad Boy) Four months out, it’s clear that this Quindaro, Kansas revolutionary has transcended the world of her debut EP and two increasingly-ambitious sci-fi concept albums with a lightness of touch both improbable and devastating. For starters, these 14 tracks are seamless and effervescent, the endless hooks growing more seductive, soothing and exciting with each listen. Grief over Prince’s death underpins everything, but he’s utterly alive here, too, and the alchemy Monae gathers from his mentorship as well as that of Stevie Wonder creates a focused, coherent and vital call for liberation that’s absolutely singular. Crucial are the links she keeps reinforcing between her working class roots and the wonderland (or Wondaland) promised by her art. On “Americans,” Reverend Sean McMillan explicitly draws on Dr. King and Langston Hughes to speak to the promise of an America where poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, women and “same-gender loving people,” where everyone, may not just survive but thrive.

Core to how this album works is its relentless sexiness, and the refrain “Everything is sex/Except sex, which is power/You know power is just sex/Now ask yourself who’s screwing you” gets at the reason rock and roll still poses an essential threat to the powers that be. In her tearjerker liner notes, she apologizes to Prince for cussing so much here, but the frankness of her words, her ability to make listeners both blush and sing along is nothing less than crucial.

For those not easily offended, take a listen to the mix of despair and defiance that fuels “Screwed,” a song that takes on sexism, the military industrial machine and commercialization as varied features of the same beast. Hope against hope demands we take the future in hand.