No fan of the hyperactive, macho ska-punk slop that's seemingly everywhere these days, I avoided Sublime's MCA debut in spite of the glowing reviews and despite my empathy for the group, on whom tragedy fell before the damn album was even released. (Surely you know by now that Sublime's frontman, guitarist/vocalist Brad Nowell, died of a heroin overdose in July.) About a month ago, I decided I should give the thing a shot. I'm glad I did: Sublime is a full-fledged, full-blown, perfectly realized masterpiece, an eclectic, far-reaching assemblage that uses ska the way Bob Wills used jazz or Jerry Lee Lewis used country -- as a stepping stone to a personal and idiosyncratic genre-spanning fusion. Throughout the set, Sublime turns on musical dimes, from the bracing hip-hop thump that kicks off "Garden Grove" to the huge chunks of fuzz guitar that rip through the scratchy reggae bop of "Same in the End." Assorted riffs and grooves are nicked from a variety of oddball sources, including Herbie Mann, Slick Rick, and Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Amid this melange, Brad Nowell assays with conscience, hilarity, and passion subjects ranging from gang violence and poverty to teen pregnancy and the joys of cannabis, throwing in the kind of detail and insight that can be summoned only from first-hand experience. There is life -- gritty, raw, sweet, cruel, funny -- in every song here, but in none more so than "April 29, 1992 (Miami)," the greatest song yet to tackle the Los Angeles riots. In it, Nowell defines perfectly what the rebellion was all about: "They said it was for the black man/They said it was for the Mexican/But not for the white man/But if you look at the streets/It wasn't about Rodney King/It's about this fucked-up situation and the fucking police/It's about coming up and staying on top." It's hard to lose a voice like Nowell's, no matter what the situation.
-- John Floyd
I'm Here for You
These are hard times for those of us who cherish the days when cutting edge black music was adult music. The soul luminaries of the early Seventies made music that challenged, smashed, and created concepts of what black music was and could be by exploring the joy, pain, and contradictions of life and love from a decidedly mature point of view. Sadly, it seems too many current adult-oriented R&B artists continue to play it safe by making the same record over and over again -- contributing nothing original musically or conceptually. It's unfortunate that we've come to expect and be pleased by such mediocrity.
How happy I was, then, to be hipped to I'm Here for You, the debut album by former Sounds of Blackness frontwoman Ann Nesby. She sings the praises of faith, commitment, and overcoming adversity, and of the pursuit of both spiritual and sexual ecstasy. On "Let the Rain Fall," Nesby makes the strongest argument I've heard yet for hip-hop/gospel fusion, and despite her faith, shows her intent to divorce her man for not being responsible on "I'm Still Wearing Your Name." There is strong, strong stuff here.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced most of this record and it's on their label, Perspective. Their effort here is a reminder of their glorious mid-Eighties golden age after they split from the Time. "I'll Do Anything for You" and especially "Thrill Me" are reminiscent of Jam and Lewis's work on Alexander O'Neal's classic 1987 album Hearsay. It's been too long since they've worked with a truly gifted vocalist like Nesby, and it's great to hear them do their thing without having to carry the entire weight of a record, a la Janet.
I know that there is a hunger out there for real R&B -- music that takes itself and the listener seriously. For every man or woman who's tried to get into Brian McKnight or Whitney Houston but knows deep down that the O'Jays and Aretha were the shit, this record was made for you.
-- Jesse Ballinger
Jazz Jamaica wants you to hoist a glass of rum and let their heady blend of ska, reggae, jazz, and mento (a type of Jamaican calypso) transport you to the lovely Caribbean. Led by ex-Jazz Warriors bassist Gary Crosby, this little big band features eight of the most interesting up-and-coming and veteran musicians in London and Kingston. But it isn't so much the solos by, say, original Skatalite Rico Rodriguez or well-respected keyboardist-melodica player Bigg Morrison or former Cymande saxophonist-flutist Bammie Rose that get Jazz Jamaica over; it's the spirit evidenced by the band as a whole. The brass and woodwind front line handles melodies with fetching behind-the-beat exhilaration, and the syncopated ebb-and-flow of the rhythm section has irresistible power. In these grooves are small alterations of detail, largely attributable to percussionist Tony Uter and young bebop/swing guitarist Alan Weekes. Jazz Jamaica pushes our pleasure points over and over, playing material that includes Skatalites numbers "Bridge View" and "Green Island" as well as sunny originals and Jamaica-cized jazz evergreens such as "Skaravan (Caravan)" and "Barbados."
-- Frank-John Hadley
The Friends of Dean Martinez
The Shadow of Your Smile
It's official: The lounge revival has gone bad. You know the trend has turned sour when a hapless quintet from Tucson lets thirteen mostly original instrumental tracks die on the vine in the name of -- who knows, amateur night at the local Holiday Inn?
It was supposed to be in the name of Dean Martin, whose un-Hispanicized name was originally part of the band's. But Martin's people threatened to sic Sinatra's legal department on the group, so Sub Pop and the band backed off, changed their name to this Southwesternly tangy tag, and blasphemed away.
Well, okay, anyone who's listened to Dean Martin's Greatest Hits all the way through can't seriously speak of blasphemy, but you can hear the sound of the bandwagon rumbling all over this disc, cutesy "Secret Agent Man" medley and all. Let the record show I'm a fan of the cocktail genre in the hands of an old master like Esquivel, or even a sharp nuevo combo such as Combustible Edison, but this is a lazy in-joke that plods along as if even the musicians knew the gag is stale. Some might try to salvage this swill as mood music. Actually, bad-mood music is more like it.
-- Brad Tyer
Violin Concerto: Shaker Loops
In less than twenty years, John Adams has gone from a minimalist composer of largely regional interest to one of contemporary classical music's Big Names. This new album illustrates both points of that evolution. Shaker Loops, written for string septet in 1977 and later arranged for string orchestra, brought him to the attention of a larger public when it was released by San Francisco's progressive New Albion label. Not long after, Adams's compositional talent was spotted by Nonesuch, the label that has released most of his music ever since. The 1994 Violin Concerto is one of his newest major compositions.
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The contrast between the two works is striking. The restless Shaker Loops is an unquestioned minimalist classic. Its title is an allusion to the religious sect and its ecstatic dancing, and also to the music technique of trilling between two adjacent notes. Early minimalism's ascetic limitations and capacity to entrance listeners matched the work's title perfectly, and Adams, after much early struggling, put together a 24-minute work of considerable intensity and allure. Its effect is not weakened by the version for string orchestra that is presented here.
The Violin Concerto is not likely to share the popular appeal of Shaker Loops. In the intervening years, Adams cut away many of minimalism's shackles and developed a language that is freer and more diffuse. In his program notes, Adams uses the analogy of "a long Chinese scroll" to describe the orchestral part, but the same can be said of the violinist's contributions -- the soloist hardly gets a break from the composer, who prescribes a seemingly endless series of notes. The first movement slowly builds in intensity but never reaches a climax, and the second treads too close to new age. Sparks are struck in the last movement, which finally reveals some of Adams's droll humor. Technical demands are very high throughout.
The performances here are excellent. Shaker Loops is played by the Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by the composer. Gidon Kremer is the brilliant soloist in the Violin Concerto; Kenty Nagano and the London Symphony Orchestra are his partners.
-- Raymond Tuttle