By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
By Karli Evans
By Jose D. Duran
By Pablo Chacon Alvarez
-- Ben Greenman
Second solo album by ex-Guns N' Roses guitarist Stradlin will no doubt wag the tail of anyone who has enjoyed Keith Richards's wheezing solo work. Double delirium for Gunner fans: Duff McKagan plays bass! Be still, my raging heart.
The music biz was abuzz for almost half a year in anticipation of Decksandrumsandrockandroll, Propellerheads' debut album. Part of the excitement surrounding this British drum and bass duo comes from its hyperactive live shows, during which Alex Gifford switches between Hammond organ and bass guitar while Will White alternates between turntables and drums. It doesn't matter that the pair's old-fashioned instruments are barely audible above the on-stage techno noise being pumped out by the drum machines and sequencers. Compared to the dull displays of button-pushing that most electronica outfits pass off as live entertainment, Propellerheads have all the energy of a kick-ass rock band.
They've captured only some of that energy on Decksandrumsandrockandroll. "Take California," Propellerheads' first British hit, opens the album with a midtempo club groove built around call-and-response sound bites. The duo likes kitschy quotes, and they use them to even better effect on "Velvet Pants," which creates a Sixties nightclub atmosphere with hokey lines delivered by young girls: "We hustled our way in/Everybody had long hair." It's an amusing technique but it gets old fast.
Propellerheads are at their best combining the spy-movie sound (horns and organs) with jungle beats (lots of high hat), as heard here on "Cominagetcha," "Spybreak!," and a version of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," the theme song from the James Bond movie of the same name. But the standout track here is "History Repeating," a delightful collaboration with jazz-pop singer Shirley Bassey. Her growling, slightly slurred delivery, which more than 30 years ago made her hit version of the theme from Goldfinger (more Bond) so memorable, lends Gifford's jazz-organ stylings some real authority.
The band's resident B-boy, White, gets shortchanged here. To date, his best moment occurred on "Props Got Mo' Skills," included on last year's Propellerheads EP. That track utilized nothing but White's virtuoso scratching and his machine-gun human beat-box riffs, resulting in a stark but wild sketch of the basic hip-hop skeleton. On the new album it's condensed into a 45-second piece of filler called "A Number of Microphones."
The Jungle Brothers appear on "You Want It Back," and De La Soul contributes some rhymes to "360i (Oh Yeah?)," but neither song is particularly interesting. For all their rapid rhythms and marvelous noises, Propellerheads, like most electronica acts, simply lack funkiness.
-- Rafer Guzman
Portraiture, the Blues Period
(Fuel 2000 Records)
On Comes Love, twentysomething pianist-vocalist Loston Harris swoons his way through nine jazz standards. A romantic traditionalist, he creates the same candlelit mood evoked by predecessors Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Nat King Cole, as well as his contemporary Harry Connick, Jr. That he succeeds can in large part be attributed to the smooth, syrupy quality of his vocals. Harris massages the lyrics on his four vocal selections -- "Close Your Eyes," "Comes Love," "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me," and "Shall We Dance?" -- into amorous musical embraces. His voice shows none of the crackle and tear of age, and while slight weathering might add to his appeal, his control here is solid and his higher-pitched croons vaguely recall young Sinatra (no, not Sinatra, Jr.). Three of the vocal selections feature Mark Shim on saxophone, and his sputtering tenor provides an appropriate accompaniment to Harris's reedy interpretations.
On piano Harris bounces off the capable, swinging rhythm section of David Grossman (bass) and Clarence Penn (drums), laying down buoyant phrases and a smoky aura. His fluttering right-hand notes follow Grossman's slow bop lines, guiding crystal-clear melodies while throwing in frequent flourishes. Comes Love also benefits from superior recording, with the pianist's supple runs accented by a rich bass tone and prominent cymbals. The Ernest Wilkins song "Stompin' Down Broadway" is a highlight, galloping along at full speed atop Penn's double-time triplets on the ride cymbal, then slowing down for a ragtime passage by Harris, and finally reaccelerating with Harris's rapid-fire runs.
Harris started his musical career as a drummer, converting to the ivories at the urging of Ellis Marsalis, father of jazz musicians Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason; Harris went on to accompany Wynton and a host of other young lions such as Marcus Roberts, Roy Hargrove, and Joshua Redman. His discovery of old Nat King Cole records around that time led him to add vocals to his repertoire and to develop his romantic style.
On the nine-track Portraiture, the Blues Period, pianist Michael Wolff sounds slightly more adventurous and less nimble than Harris, the mood more academic than romantic. The difference between Wolff's three original compositions and his handful of covers -- Miles Davis's "Jean Pierre," Sonny Rollins's "Sonnymoon for Two," Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Porkpie Hat," among others -- is glaring. As a composer Wolff is unafraid to throw a dissonant, unexpected chord into a musical space, or to allow melody lines to proceed in surprising directions. He gives himself a broad canvas on which to use fine musical brushstrokes while simultaneously stabbing and slashing the keys on terse harmonies.