Monday, March 3, 2014

Justin Nozuka - Right By You

Singer-Songwriter Justin Nozuka has never truly left the music scene, so calling his new single "Right By You," a comeback would be inaccurate. Sure, his second studio album You I Wind Land and Sea was released a whopping four years ago. But in the meantime, he's toured, released the beatific Blue Velvet Sea EP and even contributed a few gorgeous tracks to the Slakadeliqs' The Other Side of Tomorrow. That enough Justin for ya? No? Personally, I can never get enough of Justin's voice with its Stevie Wonder influence. He's the epitome of blue eyed soul, only with an acoustic, indie rock sorta feel. There are times when he channels Marvin Gaye like on his "Carried You" record, but he's always jamming on his guitar, so he sounds folkie at the same time. In any sense, he's always sounded cool to me. I was stoked when I heard he was releasing new music.

"Right By You," a teaser single from Justin's third solo LP Ulysees, which is rumored to be released next month, shows some vocal growth on Justin's part. The lyrics are sparse. There's a verse in the beginning where Justin mentions his solitude, but he mainly coos in an apologetic tone the line "Imma do right by you" for three minutes. His voice is like melted white chocolate. He, almost like Sade Adu, can sing anything and make it memorable.

This isn't his best song. It reminds me of the closing track of You I Wind Land and Sea, "How Low" -- a very sparse vocal exercise of being down in the dumps. Maybe Justin had a bad break up? Such things have been the inspiration of many a great record (see Adele's success with 21). Anyhow, Justin is touring in support of Ulysees, so I'm sure he'll be debuting newer, better records soon. I envy all who get to witness his genius live.

Be sure to feed your mp3 player Right By You. It needs its Justin Nozuka fix.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Amel Larrieux - Afraid

R&B Soulstress Amel Larrieux is back with a beautiful new single, "Afraid," the first to be lifted from her forthcoming fifth studio album Ice Cream Every Day. It's almost like she never left. Many of Larrieux's fans have been staying in touch with the R&B veteran through her live shows, and she's had plenty over the last few years, and through her ulta personal notes and updates posted on various social networking sites. In 2009 Larrieux intended on releasing new material from Ice Cream and posted two new songs to Itunes, but the album was eventually delayed, so she could raise her two daughters. Moving from one house to another and not having a home studio also added to the delay. But alas! Some artists are well worth the wait. Sade took a good ten years to release their new album -- had me thinking they retired, but I never lost hope. 

I love the thumping bass in "Afraid." I think that's the first thing that grabbed me from the record. I think it's cool to get something thumping from Larrieux whose known more for her sentimental ballads. The song, which she delivers with her trademark jazzy vocals colored with a spiraling vibrato, is an ode to her lover who must be pretty darn hot if she's "walking into walls" just thinking of his embrace. She surmises that he must be kin to the moon the ways he moves up and down and dares him to swim into her ocean for the record's climax. I can't think of another Larrieux record where she sells her sensuality so convincingly. 

Ice Cream Every Day is set for release Aug 27th, and I've already purchased my copy. Make sure you get yours and force feed it to your mp3 player ASAP. She needs it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Throwback LP: Bruno Mars - Unorthodox Jukebox

It’s hard to imagine that after over 50 years of rock and roll we would find a recording artist who is truly original. In today’s musical landscape with its multitude of influential legends, it may be impossible. For instance outfits worn by Grace Jones 30 years ago have been rehashed by Lady Gaga. Adele’s bluesy “Rolling in the Deep” recalls a young Etta James as it borrows heavily from 60’s R&B.

That realization brings me to Bruno Mars, arguably Michael Jackson’s newest and most successful vocal doppelganger. Mars released his sophomore album Unorthodox Jukebox Dec 10th, and it‘s the best throwback LP I‘ve heard in a while.

Jukebox opens with a hot tribal beat on the radio ready “Young Girls” where Mars confesses he just can’t leave the “bright eyed honeys” alone. By track seven, the eerie “Natalie,” he’s a little more perturbed, telling his gold digging ex to lock her door and run. Apparently his days of taking a grenade for his girl are over. Did somebody rub him the wrong way?  “When I Was Your Man” further cements the possibility of a heart break as Mars powerfully belts “too young, too dumb to realize that I should have bought you flowers” over a simple piano backing.

Filler track “Treasure” sounds like something from the Off the Wall recording session. It’s also a eureka moment for listeners who couldn’t quite name Mars’ vocal influence  -- that being Michael Jackson. “Moonshine” continues the Jackson influence with its lush, ethereal 80’s production. I can imagine hearing it on easy listening radio after The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Speaking of The Police, lead single “Locked Out of Heaven” borrows a loop or two from “Roxanne” or “Can’t Stand Losing You” but to good effect. The song’s a funky record that just demands a repeated listen.

Mars brings listeners to his homeland of Hawaii with reggae tinged “Show Me,” and then takes them to the club with sexy stripper anthem “Money Makes Her Smile.” The latter boasts a production assist from Diplo but still serves as one of the album‘s weaker tracks. The closer “If I Knew” brings to mind Sam Cooke’s soulful civil rights piece “A Change is Gonna Come.” It’s another successful attempt at paying homage to past greats.

Unorthodox Jukebox may just be the closest thing to pop perfection on radio right now, even if it does borrow -- albeit to good effect -- so conspicuously from the past.

Tracks for your MP3 player:

Bruno Mars - Locked out of Heaven
Bruno Mars - Gorilla
Bruno Mars - Moonshine
Bruno Mars - Show Me

Friday, November 16, 2012

Future D'L: Teena Marie - Luv Letter

As I've grown older, my list of favorite recording artists has grown substantially, but I'll always have my personal favorites -- those artists whose music I grew up on or borrowed from my parents. Teena Marie is one of those artists.  Her commercial peak was in the 80's with hits like "Lovergirl" and "Ooo La La La." She took a brief hiatus in the 90's and then returned full force with comeback record La Dona in 2004, one of the first CD's I bought with my own money. Six years later, after obsessing over practically everything she released, I learned she passed away. I was devastated. Her daughter, up-and-coming singer Rose LeBeau, is determined to release Marie's final project, titled Beautiful. It doesn't surprise me that Marie had enough leftover material to compose an album. She released music pretty consistently before she died, so I'm sure her feverish recording pace never let up. The first taste of her posthumous album is lead single "Luv Letter."

For anyone familiar with Marie's work, "Luv Letter" should come as no surprise. It's the same subdued, adult R&B format she's been releasing since the turn of the century. Her voice is still in excellent form. Her delivery is still fresh, hip and confident. Her lyrics here are delicious and still read like free form poetry. She demands her lover read her lines "because they never lie" and to listen to her lips because "they want to testify." That's the type of wordplay that as a poet myself keeps me intrigued. But Marie knows she's good. She even says so in the opening lines:

I know you heard about me and what the people say I do
The way I mix my metaphors, the way I do just what I do

On the second verse, she delivers more fun wordplay, singing:

I ain't saying nothing, baby, that ain't been said before
If all there is in life is vanity, I'm gonna even out the score
This one's for my music, pretty notes each melody
This one's for the many blessings, living inside of me

I can go on and on about Marie and her poetic lyrics. She will certainly be missed, because there was no other. If "Luv Letter" is any indication of the quality of her next album then fans of the late R&B legend are in for a treat. Be sure to feed "Luv Letter" to your MP3 player as soon as you can.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Standard: Billie Holiday - You Go To My Head

Some songs never grow old. Sure, some may be forgotten, but when you find them again, it's like opening up an old bottle of brandy. Virtually all of Billie Holiday's records are like brandy. She's a song stylist, not just a singer, so she can breathe life over the most dismal records (and there were plenty tin pan allen throwaways in the 1930's). But when you match a highly stylized singer with a highly stylized song, you take all that brandy, mix it together and you get a frat party. Take Holiday's reading of the J. Fred Coots classic "You Go To My Head." Years before Stevie Wonder wrote the book on pretty song harmonies, there was this 1938 gem. It sorta reminds me of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" in that the song is so gorgeous anybody can try singing it and sound good. Holiday recorded the song a number of times. First in 1938 to chart success, then in 1952 on her first full length album and then live in a rare duet with Helen Merrill in 1956.

The earliest recording is the most accessible and bound to hook new listeners on Holiday's work. It's a mid-tempo, sophisticated piece. The backing is subtle. Pianist Claude Thornhill strolls behind Holiday every time she sings a line, filling out the empty spaces of the song. For the bridge, there's a light tenor sax solo that's just as meaningful if not as memorable as Holiday's own vocal reading. Everything about the song is beautiful. The lyrics are sophisticated. Lines such as "sparkling burgundy brew," "bubbles in a glass of champagne," "You intoxicate my soul with your eyes" and the song title "you go to my head" sound high class and poetic. There's nothing about beer or picking somebody up from a bar here.

The second recording during the early 50s shows a major change in Holiday's voice. It's a lot deeper and fragile yet still poignant. For those entranced by the 1930's version, listening to her sing the song in such a different way should be a treat. All of her characteristic phrasing is here; she still catches the hook of the song and sings it in a cool way. The tempo is a lot slower and the backing more sparse. One of the greatest jazz guitarist of all time, Barney Kessel, gives the song a big boost. I would always listen to Holiday's 1950's records and wonder who was strumming so beautifully behind her. Kessel adds a pinch of class and sophistication to the song that arguably makes it a stronger performance than its 1930's counter-part.

For historical purposes, and also pure fun, there's a live, rare recording of Holiday in the apartment of jazz critic Leonard Feather singing the record. I guess they were having a random jam session. She suggests the song and then jokes about how she doesn't like clarinets (poking fun at contemporaries Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw). Jazz vocalist Helen Merrill alternates lines with Holiday, singing in a smokey, classy tone. It's rare that Lady Day ever sang with another person, so this was a real treat. Her reading was more drawn out than the other two versions but basically sounded like the one from a few years earlier.

Feed your mp3 player with as much Billie Holiday as you possibly can. Try all three of her versions of "You Go to My Head" if you want. But also, if you're feeling extra sophisticated, download pianist Teddy Wilson's version too.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Easy Listening: John Mayer - No Such Thing

Acoustic pop singer John Mayer has come a long way from his breakthrough 2002 hit album Room for Squares. Since then he's arguably garnered more attention for his bedroom follies than his music. Being labeled a womanizer by the media, he's dated several Hollywood A-Listers, dumped or been dumped by all of them, and even dished out the goods on Jessica Simpson's bedroom performance in a controversial Playboy interview. He made headlines in 2012 for feeling "humiliated" by Taylor Swift who reportedly penned the scathing Dear John about their breakup. Rewind back to 2002 and women seemed to be the least of Mayer's problems. His debut single the adult contemporary piece "No Such Thing" is all about rising above the usual path of going from high school to college to pursue your dreams.

The track was co-written by Clay Cook, Zac Brown Band member and one of Mayer's college buddies in the late 90s. Mayer starts out as a young man presumably being lectured by his condescending guidance counselor about "the real world" and how he needs to "stay inside the lines," grab a few credits from college and take the "so called right track."  By the time he hits the chorus, which is a bit of a climax, Mayer wants to run through the halls of his high school and tell everyone he made it the nontraditional way. He sings, rather melodically:

I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the
Top of my lungs
I just found out there's no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you got to rise above

John Mayer's the type of songwriter that can send a chill down my spine with his lyrics. His songs make me think and daydream. It definitely helps that "No Such Thing" is strikingly relatable, and I imagine more-so for a coming of age crowd.

Mayer uses his trademark breathy vocals for the track. There's no over-singing here. I can detect a little bit of blues influence in his voice. He'll embrace it full on with songs like Gravity later in his career. For new John Mayer fans looking for entry level songs, "No Such Thing" is a sure thing for your MP3 player. Feed it the dreamy record ASAP!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

New: Mary J. Blige - Don't Mind

Queen of Hip-Hop Soul Mary J. Blige has been a major force in R&B for the past twenty years. Whether covering classic hits like like Debarge's "A Dream" or belting out her own numbers like "Be Without You," Blige's husky, powerful voice is always authentic. Even in an age of disposable R&B, Queen Mary incorporates fresh rap features without being overshadowed or alienating her grown and sexy crowd. She keeps the momentum going with "Don't Mind," her fourth official single from My Life II... The Journey Continues. It's definitely a track you want to feed your MP3 player.

This song grabbed me as soon as I heard that electronic opening loop. Once the bass dropped, it became an instant head banger. Jerry Duplessis, Wyclef Jean's cousin, produced the record. He's known for his work on The Fugees classic album The Score.

Blige is in great form for the mid-tempo piece, going in for vocal runs when convenient but mainly taking a laid back approach. Her vocals are, as always, full and in great form. There's no whispering here. The song lyrics aren't much to harp over. Here Blige's character and her man have both done wrong, but he's the only man for her, so she doesn't mind saying she loves him.

The music video is gorgeous, showing Queen Mary all dolled up dancing on a stool. She's sitting and dancing fully clothed by the way. She's not half nude and performing some wierd sexual stunt à la Rihanna. Everything's classy here.

Here's the link for the video.

Don't deprive your MP3 player. Feed it a few Mary J Blige tracks from her My Life II album!