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Galactic, Sade, Lil Wayne, You Say Party! We Say Die! and More

By Brian Baker · February 19th, 2010 · I Shall Be Released
I'm working with the frenzied flailing of a one-legged extra in a Jackie Chan movie in an attempt to wrap up way too many deadlines before I head up to Michigan for a long weekend of much deserved R&R. This means that I have to complete a laundry list of local and out-of-town assignments (which includes this very blog, for this week as well as next) and then do laundry and pack for the trip in time for an approximate 6 p.m. launch Friday.

This also means that my menopausal wife and hormonal teenage daughter will be without a referee for three whole days. I can only hope that I don’t come home Monday night to find one of them filing her teeth down to razor points with a rusty hasp and the other one face down with a garden rake sticking out of her back. And it’s fairly even money on which would be which. The girl is strong but the wife is crafty. I may just give them both pints of UDF Homemade ice cream with special Xanax flavor crystals before I take off from what I am affectionately referring to this week as Thunderdome.

At any rate, the subtext of all this is a relatively simple equation: More assignments plus less time = crap on a cracker. With the pile of work staring at me from various artificially created bluffs and terraces around my desk, I shouldn’t even be bothering with this smattering of exposition, I should just let fly and dive into the discs. But I'm compelled by forces too powerful to be satisfied with mere reviewery.

Introductions must be made — it would be rude not to — with the reviews to politely follow. It’s all part and parcel of a condition I’ve endured for more years than I care to admit: Five words where one would suffice. You’re the lucky one … you can just skip ahead. I’m forced by primal instinct to type and you’re already eyebrow-deep in the Galactic review. Go on ahead, I’ll catch up.

Galactic has always been the shifting sum of its evolving parts. When the band started, it was a synthesis of the DC Go Go scene (courtesy of guitarist transplants Jeff Raines and bassist Robert Mercurio) and the wide-ranging influences of the band’s New Orleans birthplace (by way of natives keyboardist Rich Vogel, saxophonist Ben Ellman and drummer Stanton Moore). With NOLA old school R&B vocalist Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet at the mic, Galactic became a furious and edgy Funk/Jam outfit with an unbeatable second-line pulse. But several unforeseen events conspired to derail whatever direction Galactic thought they were following.

In 2004, Houseman left Galactic after complications from diabetes forced him from the road. Not long after, a tour with Hip Hop icon Lyrics Born gave the band the idea to replace Houseman with guest MCs. But just as Galactic began work on the concept, the project was nearly destroyed by Katrina’s unblinking cruelty. When the band finally realized its sonic vision, the end result was 2007’s mesmerizing and game-changing From the Corner to the Block, a perfect hybrid of Galactic’s Jam-fried Funk and New Orleans’ underground Hip Hop congregation.

Galactic goes to the MC well once more on their follow-up, Ya-Ka-May, which Ned Sublette describes in his liner notes as a Chinese/Afro/NOLA dish consisting of available meat, noodles, green onions and a hard-boiled egg, the perfect metaphor for the unlikely but amazing sonic recipe cooked up by Galactic and their guests.

When the band teams with iconic New Orleans traditionalists (“Boe Money” with the Rebirth Brass Band, “Heart of Steel” with Irma Thomas, “Bacchus” with Allen Toussaint, “Wild Man” with Big Chief Bo Dollis), Galactic deftly colors their heritage with contemporary verve. But when the quintet brings in younger acolytes (“Cineramascope” with Tromboine Shorty and Corey Henry, “Speaks His Mind“ with Walter “Wolfman” Washington) and fresh new Nawlins Hip Hop and Bounce voices (“Katey vs. Nobby” with Katey Red and Sissy Nobby, “Do It Again” with Cheeky Blakk, “Double It” with Big Freedia), their collaborations bluster and blow with a constructive force equal to the storm that laid their home low five years ago.

Ya-Ka-May is further evidence that Galactic’s new sonic gumbo is solidly rooted in Blues/Funk tradition and boldly spiced with the adrenaline of young New Orleans.

On their first few releases, The Watson Twins were harder to pin down than a Wall Street executive in a Senate subcommitee hearing. On their debut EP, Southern Manners, Leigh and Chandra Watson filtered their Kentucky roots and early Country exposure through an affinity for Joni Mitchell, Natalie Merchant and The Cowboy Junkies. Almost simultaneously, the Watsons backed Rilo Kiley vocalist Jenny Lewis on her debut solo album, the Laura-Nyro-meets-Tammy-Wynette Country Soul of Rabbit Fur Coat, but the twins’ equal billing on the album further obscured their own sonic identity. 2008’s contemplative Fire Songs helped establish the Watson Twins’ version of atmospheric Folk Pop, lessening the overt Country aspects and broadening the Pop base considerably.

Soulful Pop is the clear order of the day on the Watsons’ sophomore album, Talking to You, Talking to Me.

“Harpeth River” has a languid Dusty Springfield Memphis Soul feel with a ripping Curtis Mayfield undercurrent, while “Forever Me” wouldn’t be terribly out of place in Sade’s repertoire and “Midnight” displays Aretha Franklin’s quiet power over a soundtrack that references James Brown and 10,000 Maniacs with similar enthusiasm. “Savin’ You” has the mellow aggression of Annie Lennox produced by Brian Eno, “Tell Me Why” slinks and coos like Shelby Lynne channeling ’60s cocktail Pop, and “Devil in You” is Gospel Americana Pop with a dour swing.

There are moments when the Watsons warble and wail with the same determination as their British Soul revivalist counterparts but with an authenticity and conviction that mere copyists lack. With Talking to You, Talking to Me, the Watson Twins have finally shown the scope of their potential and a brilliant direction for their bright future.

If you lament the bygone days when the B-52s were concerned with narwhales and rock lobsters and private Idahos and planet Clares but still find a good deal to love among the out-of-bounds partiers later, more mature work, You Say Party! We Say Die! is here to give you the best of both worlds. For the past six years, YSP!WSD! has been crafting their unique vision of ’70s New Wave/Synth Pop by channeling elements of the B-52s and Blondie while jolting their influences into frenetic motion with the jumper cables of contemporary indie Punk/Pop.

For their third full length album, XXXX, the Canadian quintet draw on the rejuvenation that came with lead vocalist Becky Nincovic’s health rehabilitation and the band retreating from the very brink of breaking up nearly three years ago. Nincovic’s work with a vocal coach is evident as the already strong frontwoman is singing with an amazing new control, power and restraint.

On XXXX’s opener, “There Is XXXX (Within My Heart),” Nincovic starts with a dour lilt that floats over the proceedings like Kate Bush fronting Wall of Voodoo but grows in intensity as the band slowly presses the pedal, which is followed by the infectious two-minute New Wave dancetronic heart needle of “Glory.” With these two opening salvos, YSP!WSD! establishes its impressive range on XXXX (which is YSP!WSD!’s censored form of the word “love”), from an irresistibly detached passion that suggests early Martha and the Muffins and Siouxsie and the Banshees (“Dark Days,” “Lonely’s Lunch”) to a giddy and completely appealing B-52s/Devo Dance/Pop weirdness (“Cosmic Wanship Avengers,” “Make XXXX”). Fhe album’s lead single, “Laura Palmer’s Prom,” swells with the synth expanse of OMD as Nincovic warbles with the naive beauty of Miranda Lee Richards.

YSP!WSD!’s first two albums (2005’s Hit the Floor!, 2007’s Lose All Time) were certainly indicative of a band that had crateloads of potential — I saw them in 2006 at SXSW and was absolutely captivated by their sound and live presentation. XXXX is the work that delivers on every sonic and philosophical promise they've ever made.

If Rascal Flatts is Country music’s clean cut, commercially palatable Beatles, then Reckless Kelly is the genre’s Rolling Stones: grittier, more authentically influenced, rawer at the core even when their output is every bit as polished.

The brainchild of Idaho brothers Willy and Cody Braun, Reckless Kelly was crowned Austin’s Best Country Band in the city’s 2008 music awards, an incredible honor considering the talent that inhabits every square foot of the Texas capital, where the Brauns have been based since 1997. Since then, Reckless Kelly has released five studio albums, two live sets and a greatest hits collection, and recorded for four different labels. But it was 2008’s Bulletproof, the band’s debut for Yep Roc, which proved to be the quintet’s biggest success, nearly cracking the Country chart’s Top 20 and even hitting the middle of the Pop charts. It probably hasn’t hurt that the band has made high profile and highly vocal fans like Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle and Kevin Welch along the way.

For their new album, Reckless Kelly takes on something of a concept project; Somewhere in Time is a tribute to Pinto Bennett, a renowned singer/songwriter and fellow Idahoan whose work had a big impact on the Brauns. Although on paper it might seem a risky proposition for Reckless Kelly to follow its commercial breakthrough with someone else’s relatively obscure songs, Bennett’s deeply felt cowboy songs of love lost and hard times fit the band like a tailored glove and they present them with the spirit and verve of their original material.

“Little Blossom” kicks the album off with a Skynyrd-like fury, followed by the Springsteen/Mellencamp/Petty heartland Country anthemics of “The Ballad of Elano DeLeon” (featuring vocal assistance from Joe Ely) and “Some People’s Kids.” But RK shows off their pure Honky Tonk chops with purer Country fare like “I’ve Done Everything I Could Do Wrong” and the brilliant “I Hold the Bottle, You Hold the Wheel,” a fairly significant departure from the band’s Texas Red Dirt/twang Rock roots.

Bennett himself even shows up on a couple of tracks, as do members of his revered Famous Motel Cowboys, but even as Bennett’s songs form the foundation of Somewhere in Time, it’s Reckless Kelly’s boundless energy and vibrant interpretations, both within and beyond their established Country Rock range, that make this album a tribute album that bristles with originality.

Lil Wayne
has taken so much shit over Rebirth, you’d think he’d ordered a metric ton of fertilizer to grow the thing. Sadly, it’s not completely unwarranted. From a purely musical aspect, Rebirth is fairly strong; clearly Weezy has had it in mind for some time to pump out a true Rock/Rap hybrid, a noble goal that was certainly within his creative reach. The soundtrack of Rebirth is an interesting style synthesis, folding Zep-like stomp and swagger with elements of crunchy Pop, expansive Prog and guitar-fueled R&B, and there are moments when it comes together effectively — “Runnin,” Wayne’s duet with Shanell aka SNL is anthemic Pop with attitude to burn, “Ground Zero” thrums with a big Rock undercurrent, “Drop the World,” featuring a blistering appearance by Eminem, combines cool and hot synth Pop directions and there’s a certain Fishbone/Chili Peppers charm about “The Price Is Wrong.”

But there are way more misfires than direct hits. “Da Da Da” wastes a decent music bed on lyrics that sound like an Andy Samberg parody for Saturday Night Live (“Back stroke, back stroke, like Michael Phelps with my back stroke”), “On Fire” swells with the manufactured ’80s passion of the St. Elmo’s Fire soundtrack and Rebirth might well mark the point in Hip Hop’s development where even T. Pain rolls his eyes at the almost painful overuse of Auto Tune.

Based on a decent percentage of Rebirth, Lil Wayne has got a killer Rock album building up inside of his ticking dome. Maybe his upcoming jail stint will give him the opportunity to seriously consider how to execute it properly.

Sade’s career is something of a numbers game. The Nigerian-born Brit has sold somewhere north of 50 million records since her auspicious 1984 debut, Diamond Life, and its silky, ubiquitous single, “Smooth Operator.” It’s been 10 years since her last album, 2000’s well-received Lovers Rock, and 18 years since the one before that, 1992’s Love Deluxe.

But perhaps the most important integer in Sade’s quarter-century-and-change timeline is four, the number of members in the band that bears the name of its impossibly famous vocalist. And most importantly, neither the number nor the names have changed in all that time. When Epic signed the unknown singer of the British Soul band Pride in 1983, she made the inclusion of three of its members in her band a legal prerequisite before she would ink the deal. Guitarist Stuart Matthewman, keyboardist Andrew Hale and bassist Paul Denman have been with her ever since, and their band deal has remained exactly the same from the start: an even four-way cut.

That kind of personal commitment and professional consistency bears examination when considering the sounds emanating from Sade’s new album, the sterling Pop effort Soldier of Love. Other than the biting and percussive title cut, which still goes down like well-aged scotch, this new Sade album could very easily pass for the follow-up to Diamond Life nearly 25 years ago. From the mother-love prayer of “Morning Bird” to the Reggae-flecked “Babyfather” to the soulful lament of “Bring Me Home” to the marvelously melancholy hymnal of “The Safest Place,” Sade and her longstanding band don’t deviate far from the formula that's defined them all since their introduction to the world in 1984.

But the scotch comparison is apt; Sade’s voice and her band’s expertise have aged beautifully, with a smokier and jazzier finish, as time and tide have sanded just a shade of the Pop sheen from their presentation. Sade and her band don't pretend to be sages or bards, offering weighty ruminations on the human condition, and Soldier of Love isn't a groundbreaking achievement. It's simply more of the soulfully evocative Pop that Sade has always done amazingly well.



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