-- In this batch of reviews we have what is most likely the late Sharon Jones’ final record with Dap-Kings, Barenaked Ladies' new record with a humorous title, Morrissey’s outspoken new record and a knowledge-packed new set from rapper Talib Kweli.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ “Soul of a Woman”
Sharon Jones died last November after a battle with pancreatic cancer, but beforehand, her band, the Dap-Kings, were able to lay down “Soul of a Woman" -- a vintage slice of Jones’ work. If she was sick or in pain during the recording, that discomfort isn’t evident. This is the sound of Jones in her element, delivering soul work-ups like “Matter of Time” and “Sail On!” one moment and timeless ballads like “Searching for a New Day” and “When I Saw Your Face” the next.
Like the rest of her albums with the Dap-Kings, there’s an enjoyable, analog murkiness to these records. These Daptone offerings are meant to mirror the classic output of Motown and Stax in the sixties. Jones and her voice are enveloped by a warm haze that in many ways also allows the drums and horns to have extra kick. This record could have very easily been recorded in 1963 with very few differences.
This is a short, tight offering. At under 36 minutes, you get the idea it was perhaps recorded in a quick, focused fury. The music world is a weaker and more melancholy place in her absence. This is a fitting, and sadly premature, cap to her legendary career.
“Pass Me By” This is a warm bit of soul and a really enjoyable, bittersweet final glimpse.
“Searching for a New Day” Both funky and smooth, this track is a dynamic treat.
“When I Saw Your Face” Aspects of this song recall Smokey Robinson’s peak work. The orchestration and horn-work are stellar.
Barenaked Ladies’ “Fake Nudes”
The Barenaked Ladies’ 12th studio album, “Fake Nudes” is the strongest and most sonically varied record they have released since the 2009 departure of former co-leader Steven Page. This is their fourth studio album without Page and as they did on their last album, 2015’s “Superball,” they are continuing to find their footing again as a quartet.
Ed Robertson has continued to take the reins and from the slightly sad but loving opener “Canada Dry” to the upbeat “Bringing It Home,” he’s writing some of his best songs.
Keyboardist Kevin Hearn, however, emerges as the real star here. He sings quite a few numbers with a humorous bend. “Dusty Rooms” really stands out because of its hilarious lyrical nod to Mr. T and for lines like, “Dial 8 for a really weird time.” “Bag of Bones” sounds like They Might Be Giants in the best and most madcap way, while “Invisible Fence” is an enjoyable dose of jangle-pop.
Throw in Jim Creeggan’s tight “We Took the Night” and you have what makes BNL’s sharpest record in a while. They are always reliable but this collection has them sounding more energized again, even if “Lookin’ Up” sounds a tad too sugary and targeted.
“Fake Nudes” is the work of a deeply inspired band having a great deal of fun. Twenty-five years after their debut album, “Gordon,” they keep evolving as a band and as artists.
Focus Tracks: “Bring it Home” This Robertson-led track sounds like a modern callback to “Maroon.” “We Took the Night” This is an argument for Jim Creeggan to front more tracks. In two minutes and change, he’s able to give the band a magnetic, new-wave-influenced fuzziness.“Dusty Rooms” Indeed this song is both silly and disturbing but it is fascinatingly lighthearted, as well. Hearn’s sense of humor is a real asset to the band. It’s nice to see his role increase over time.
Morrissey’s “Low In High School”
It’s hard to tell what’s happening with Morrissey's creative process, but he's taken a dive downward with “Low in High School.”
At his creative peak, Morrissey was wordy and self-obsessed and that used to work on classics like the Smiths’ “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” and his solo hit “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get.” Now, his writing plays more like sprawling political diatribes than songs.
Sonically, this collection has a semi-Middle Eastern vibe in places. However, elsewhere, the hard-charging sludgy execution of the instrumentation is rather ugly and assaulting, as is the case on the opener, "My Love, I'd Do Anything for you" and the overwrought, "Who Will Protect Us From the Police?”
Throughout this collection, Morrissey rallies against institutions many hold dear, including governments and the mainstream media. This is on the whole a more even collection that its predecessor, but in combination, these last two records are enough to frustrate any longstanding Morrissey fan.
As Morrissey evolves from the introspective self-aware poet he once was into the human representation of an internet troll, it gets sadder and sadder. “Low in High School” is a heavy-handed, ill-advised endeavor even by Morrissey’s standards. Here’s where he officially turns from a passionate renegade into sour curmudgeon.
“Home is a Question Mark” This track kind of works because it stylistically recalls earlier while building into an appealing chorus. This is one of the few times on this record Morrissey actually plays to his strengths.
“All the Young People Must Fall in Love” This is just as pointed as the rest of the record but at least it is melodic and vaguely catchy.
Talib Kweli’s “Radio Silence”
Talib Kweli’s latest record “Radio Silence” is a tight, intense offering that occasionally finds the rapper dropping rhymes over string-assisted backdrops. This is hip-hop for people who appreciate old-school rhymes and knowledge. Kweli possesses an aura around him that sounds like it is rich with history beyond his 42 years. Listen to “Traveling Light” with Anderson.Paak or the deeply affecting “All of Us” with Jay Electronica and Yummy Bingham and you get know that Kweli’s desire to educate, enlighten and move his audience hasn’t changed since he first was making records as part of Black Star and Reflection Eternal.
He has some unlikely guests here as well. You wouldn’t necessarily expect that Waka Flocka Flame to be able to share track-space with Kweli, but here his is on “Chips.” Rick Ross joins him effectively on the spiritually minded “Heads up Eyes Open,” while former Dirty Projectors member Amber Coffman sings the hook on the title track.
At only 11 tracks, this album seems rather lean compared to some of Kweli’s past records, but it is succinct in its approach. It’s evident that he’s trying to appeal to both old and new hip-hop heads. There’s a vintage dustiness on some songs while others have clattering electro-beats. When you listen to the six-and-a-half-minute Datcha, Bilal and Robert Glasper collaboration, “Write at Home,” that closes the record, it becomes openly evident that Kweli is overtly trying to evoke something even deeper.
In a way his music attempts to encompass a wide array of cultural influences. Kweli is a jazz and soul-educated scholar. He’s still righteously carrying the “consciousness” mantle even if he does attest that it really is “common sense.” No matter what, Kweli is a hip-hop giant working as hard as he can to make sure his music has a positive impact.
Focus Tracks:“All of Us” (Featuring Jay Electronica and Yummy Bingham) Kweli and Jay Electronica dissect racial injustice and systematic oppression. Survival and understanding one’s history is the key. “Heads up Eyes Open” (Featuring Rick Ross and Yummy Bingham) This is a soulful and gospel-infused number. Kweli and Rick Ross are definitely coming from slightly different places in their verses but at its core, this is a song about lifting one’s spirit to its optimum level.
“Radio Silence” (Featuring Amber Coffman and Myka 9) Kweli begins this electro-hued, constantly shifting track with an admirably rapidly paced flow. He’s trying to find his purpose and the meaning of life in the face of an increasingly chaotic society. Religious and philosophical pondering ensues.
Coming up: New records from Bjork and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds.