Barrence Whitfield & The Savages – Under The Savage Sky
If the late 2000s and the 2010s have proved anything, it’s that good old-fashioned garage rock seems resistant to the vagaries of time. The late 1960s and the early 1970s – whether it’s the retro-funk/soul of an act like the Honeybears or the raw, amphetamine proto-punk revival of Ty Segall – have proved to be a continually fertile source for people who are nostalgic for a time they never lived through. Barrence Whitfield and the Savages fall under the former, fusing old-school R&B, Stones-esque garage music, early funk, and Motown soul into a compressed nugget of Nuggets. This is pure rock ‘n’ roll, free of toxic adolescent angst, radio-chasing pop blandness, and cutting-edge trend chasing.
There may be some out there who remember Whitfield from his first decade, running from 1984 to 1995, where he traded in pretty much the same stuff he’s got on display here. His hiatus ended in 2011; since then he’s put out three albums just like Under The Savage Sky, cloaked in nostalgia and dripping with raw, crunchy attitude. The only misstep is “Angry Hands”, which sounds too close to Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” to be entirely comfortable. Otherwise this is a solid collection of retro-rock that hits all the right notes. While it doesn’t break new ground, it also doesn’t really have to. Certain sounds, while they may not be chart-topping, are timeless; the sound that Whitfield has staked his name on is one such.
Bilal – In Another Life
New York’s Bilal Oliver has been a relatively unknown quantity for the greater part of his career, a time span that stretches back to his debut album in 2001. He had been a hot item back in the early oughts, when his sophomore album, Love For Sale, was slated to be on Interscope and was to feature production work from such luminaries as J. Dilla and Dr. Dre. When Bilal opted to scrap those plans and produce an album built around his own instrumentation, Interscope balked and the album went unreleased. Such a reversal has set back any number of artists in a similar situation, so when 2010 rolled around and Bilal released another album, it was nice just to hear new music from him. Since then, however, he’s put in time working – albums, singles, and appearances on the tracks of much bigger names. He climbed back up the industry ladder rung by rung until he hit a breakthrough this year; Kendrick Lamar’s cultural touchstone To Pimp A Butterfly features quite a bit of work from Bilal, and it’s thrust his name back into the limelight.
All that “comeback from a career-ending event” stuff is heartwarming, to be sure, but it doesn’t mean a damn if it’s not capitalized upon. In Another Life capitalizes. Bilal’s tastes run through a swampy concoction of soul, funk, jazz, and R&B, and the work displayed on the album showcases that perfectly. The singer found exactly the right producer in Adrian Younge, whose gritty soul-sampling work brought Ghostface Killah out of the mid-career doldrums on the two Twelve Reasons To Die albums. The same core beats can be found on In Another Life, but Younge retools it to be lighter, more soulful than street-level. While the synth-and-snare crackle of “Sirens II” could easily have hosted GFK’s cluttered, menacing flow, it’s a more than ample bed for Bilal’s smooth, streetlight voice. It’s this particular formula that provides the best moments of the album: “Sirens II”, “Star Now”, “Satellites”, “Lunatic”, and the Kendrick Lamar “hit ya back” epic “Money Over Love”.
Call it a comeback. This is the apex (so far) of everything Bilal’s been working towards, and if there’s any justice it’ll get him more work in higher profile settings. If you’re a fan at all of any of the kitchen sink of genres that Bilal is bringing to the table, you owe it to yourself to check In Another Life out.
Van Hunt – The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets
2014-2015 is already shaping up to the be the year that cool, slinky funk slips back into the hipster playlists of the world. Between D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly the sounds of the early 1970s are coming back in a big way. Add in Van Hunt to this conversation. Hailing from Dayton, OH – home of Guided By Voices! – Van Hunt has been on an upward swing since the early 00s through a judicious usage of soul, funk, R&B, and smooth sexuality. He’s also the poster boy for talent being screwed around by major labels; after two albums with Capitol Records he was shuffled around to a subsidiary label and his third album, Popular, was shelved despite being a solid album by all accounts. Van Hunt struck out on his own afterwards, turning to crowdfunding to get The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets made. Thank god for a generous internet, because this is one rewarding album.
It’s a subtle album, full of understated percussion, slinky basslines, versatile keyboard work, and expertly integrated guitar lines, almost all of which are played by Van Hunt himself. It’s a tour de force for a talented man, a modern day disciple of Prince with a hint of both Sly Stone and David Bowie. The Prince influence is the big one though; subtle and restrained as The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets is, it is absolutely awash in sexuality. In that it sets itself apart from the political and cultural examinations of America that characterize both Black Messiah and To Pimp A Butterfly. This is the bedroom addition of the modern retro-funk movement, the freak in the sheets in contrast to the righteous movement in the streets.
Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show
I’ve gone through periods where R&B singers – actually mainly pop singers appropriating R&B, but still – have really annoyed me. Oddly, it’s the same sort of annoyance I feel for people who think Yngwie Malmsteen is a knockout guitarist: it’s that idea that technical impressiveness is somehow the sole arbiter of artistic worth. “Oh look at me, I can play lightning-fast sweep arpeggios!”. “Oh look at the range of my voice and how long I can put my hand to my ear, close my eyes, and have my melisma orgasm in your face!”. Well, so what? I mean, kudos to you for getting that sort of skill level with your chosen instrument, but why should I want to listen to it over, say, a really great lo-fi garage rock song? Unless I’m an aspiring shred guitarist or oversinging diva, I suppose.
That’s what I enjoy about Reality Show, and Jazmine Sullivan in general. She has the pipes – lord knows she can hold her own – but she doesn’t go out of her way to prove it constantly. She steps back and lets these songs speak for themselves, favouring what she’s singing about over how she’s singing it. When a stomping track like the opening “Dumb” or something gritty and street-level like “#HoodLove” connect, it’s not because her voice is the main focus, it’s the song. It makes moments in which she really let’s loose, like the impassioned “Forever Don’t Last”, much more visceral and electrifying. The highwater mark here, however, is “Stupid Girl”, an update of undeniable Motown soul that gets in and out in a very slinky three minutes. To think she almost bailed on music for good in 2011. I’m glad she decided that it was fun after all.