Friday, October 17, 2008

What Are You Listening To Lately (Part 2)?

I think I can speak for many record store employees when I say that the most dreaded question a customer can ask is “What are you listening to lately?” Most of us are on our own strange little personal journeys that are miles away from what anyone else we know is interested in. But I can promise you, we all have a pretty similar reaction when that question comes up: we brace ourselves and usually throw back a quick "What have YOU heard lately that you've liked?", because it would take too long to explain exactly what we’re actually listening to lately and why. With that in mind, here's a snapshot of what I have actually been listening to lately – what’s in the walkman, on the stereo, what I’m picking when I’m at work, and what I’ve been playing when I’m in the shower.

Talking HeadsMore Songs About Buildings And Food
This is where their interest in R&B (and by extension, all black music) really starts to infect what they’re doing (and I mean that in the best possible way, of course). From the Al Green cover that they first cracked the U.S. top 40 with to the Shirley Ellis single they copped “double beating, double beating, double beating” from to the disco whistles buried deep in the mix in “I’m Not in Love,” this is a real move away from the quirks that so defined the debut. Of course, there are several songs of the same vintage as the ones that made up Talking Heads '77, but mixed in alongside the improved musicianship, their slicker feel for rhythmic motion, and most importantly the added depth of production that Eno helped them achieve, it really makes this record shine in a special way that the lankier, sparer debut doesn’t. Even if the tunes of the '77 may overall be at a (slightly) higher level (an 8.7 as opposed to an 8.6, say), the best stuff here is easily the equal of anything there, and the devotion to actually developing the music to another level, to working it over in the studio gives this the nod for me if you were to force me to choose. If only every band was this committed to developing their sound with each record.

Rahsaan Roland KirkCompliments of the Mysterious Phantom
It’s tough after listening to and reviewing a dozen or so great live performances by one artist to pinpoint exactly what makes this one of that one as good as others. It’s more like it’s one point along a continuum of great music and if it’s not immediately distinguishable from all the others, it’s at least at or above a certain level of quality at all times. Song selection is there to scan and certainly doesn’t tell you anything about the playing anyway – which in the pre-stroke Roland Kirk is always amazing. Humor is high here (both musical and in the spoken interludes), hard-blown saxes are at a high too. Multi-horn playing is minimal and it’s light on manzello and stritch, though nose flute has a full feature. Excellent, yet again. I expect nothing less. And if you have some doubts that he’s serious, you should require no more proof than the first two tracks to understand – he’s major. For real.

Jungle BrothersDone By the Forces of Nature
For the long term, I’d have to say that the Jungle Brothers have been the most disappointing prospect of all the major Native Tongues groups. Nobody else of the movement showed such boundless promise that blanded out over their (sadly, intermittent) career into such so-so music. Listeners coming in late to their music at Raw Deluxe or the reduced-to-a-duo version of the group that made V.I.P., when they actually gained some mainstream radio play may not understand thius, but their great debut and this masterful follow-up – which, I might add, came out the same year as De La Soul and Queen Latifah’s debuts and a year before A Tribe Called Quest debuted – made it seem like the could’ve been the best group of the bunch. Like all the Native Tongues Posse, they drew influences from everywhere musically (especially James Brown, of course), but what stamped them as unique was how up, how positive, how pro-Black they were, always. All their compatriots touched on these things, but the JB’s never went to in-jokes, as De La was wont to do, never invested more in vibe than in words, as Tribe sometimes did, and they’re simply more consistent than Latifah – than any of the others, actually. At least that’s the case here, where their love for all kinds of pop music, their Afro-centricism, their humanism, their humor – all of it comes into play, molded into their best songs. They refined everything that their debut promised and they’ve never been as good since. Sigh….

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