The New Midnight Band

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Just because you’re alive don’t mean you’re living/ You don’t have to be locked up to be in prison/ Within the mind you can be doing hard time.”

M1, Kentyah, Brian Jackson

M1, Kentyah, Brian Jackson

Music and social change have been intertwined since humans first picked up instruments and began to gather in groups. The stories of who we are and how we see the world AND how we think that world should change frequently flow with more unhindered power and poetry when forged into song, the merger of melody and singing giving music a potentially greater reach than a speech or treatise. Our mind is most permeable when we are dancing and singing. Marvin Gaye and Funkadelic understood this, as did every blues and folk singer that lay in their evolution. The jazz phalanx of John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Pharaoh Sanders understood this truth, and most assuredly Gil Scott-Heron knew it as he cried from the streets, scattering the pieces of a man to the wind to help spread word that the revolution – when and not IF it comes – will not be broadcast to the blind masses.

The mid-60s through the early 1980s saw a flourishing of savvy politically charged and musically robust albums emerge from the African-American artistic community and their allies. Like a lot of positive social change movements, the Reagan Era and what followed took the wind out this progressive musical arc. Hip-hop has picked up some of the slack, though the mainstreaming of the genre has, like most things related to an influx of money, vastly diluted the message and its impact in cloud of bogus money love, misogyny, and grotesque self-aggrandizing that gives little thought to the greater good beyond facile lip service sloganeering. But truly musical, socially conscious music in the vein of Gil Scott-Heron and his kindred spirits has been in short supply – and being blunt, mostly a pale shadow of what Gil and his primary architect Brian Jackson wrought.

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All this is offered as preface to the extraordinary debut release from Kentyah Presents M1, Brian Jackson & The New Midnight Band, which neatly and confidently updates and makes excitingly relevant the issues and ideas touched upon in the original Midnight Band’s first offering, The First Minute of a New Day, as well as likeminded classics like The Last Poets’ This Is Madness, Marvin’s What’s Going On and Donny Hathaway’s Extension of a Man. Part of the resounding success of Evolutionary Minded (released on September 10 on Motema Music) is its deft incorporation of hip-hop and modern soul elements, weaving in threads from Eric B & Rakim, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and Public Enemy (whose Chuck D blazes the mic with streetwise righteousness on two cuts), amongst other worthies. But rather than some overly thought out, corporate minded merger of yesterday and today, Evolutionary Minded finds the through-line between the struggles of brothers and sisters past and the ones fighting for a better, more just life today.

The New Midnight Band

The New Midnight Band

Having keyboard wizard and all-together together human Brian Jackson at the center of this project – he co-produced the record with mastermind and herder of cats Kentyah Fraser – is nothing but good. This vibes strongly with what he and Gil Scott-Heron forged back in the day but this is also resolutely contemporary, the creators smartly aware how poisonous and/or anesthetizing rank nostalgia can be. And given recent events – America’s ridiculously overgrown, racially slanted Prison Industrial Complex, the George Zimmerman shooting of Trayvon Martin, the GOP’s relentless attacks on the poor & sick, voter suppression efforts nationwide in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to de-tooth the Voting Rights Act, and more – it’s abundantly clear that despite significant wins in the 60s & 70s America has backslid something awful and needs to be slapped to wakeful action once again. Evolutionary Minded is that welcome smack to be reborn in a better mindset, to rise up with knowledge and purpose for several generations, both the ones who fought the initial battles and the one coming up today.

The first words one encounters in the gatefold booklet make it clear that the war for equality and fairness is still raging:

Question: How many revolutions does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Answer: As many as it takes before the light goes on.

First Single

First Single

The list of participants reads like a DJ wet dream: Dead Prez’s M1 & Stic.man, The Headhunters’ Mike Clark, Bill Summers and Paul Jackson, The Roots’ Martin Luther, The Last Poets’ Abiodun, P-Funk’s Blackbyrd McKnight, Galactic’s Stanton Moore, Wu-Tang Clan’s Killah Priest, and many more including some sharp-tongued, grimly funny interludes from The Black Panther Party’s Bobby Seale. This is a wondrous gathering of the tribes, many voices joining together to raise a glorious ruckus. What’s seriously impressive is how there’s no showboating, the individuals – many of them hyper-strong personalities in other contexts – easing into a collective flow that makes this an ALBUM and not just a series of disgruntled polemics set to a beat.

The cover of Evolutionary Minded carries the message right below the title, “Furthering The Legacy of Gil Scott-Heron.” With no disrespect intended to Scott-Heron, whose work particularly on his 2010 comback I’m New Here had grown more expressly personal and sadly clouded by the life he lived outside his music, this album and its smart, fiercely dedicated, ferociously talented and passionate originators pick up the torch the man himself laid down in the early 80s. The worries and work to be done expressed on From South Africa to South Carolina, Pieces of a Man and It’s Your World still require our attention. Thankfully, we have these sonic warriors to stir us to action in this pull-no-punches-but-try-to-embrace salvo for the times we live in and the ones we hope to see our children shine in tomorrow.

Ezra Furman

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Baby_EzraFurman_album

Context can be everything. However, even without the sharply penned, spiritually pointed liner notes one quickly picks up on the whopping soulful unease of The Year of No Returning (released on CD by Bar/None Records on July 16), the solo debut from Ezra Furman. As Furman points out early on, “You don’t have to be clever to detect a big American sadness,” and the boyish former frontman of cult adored Ezra Furman & The Harpoons doesn’t flinch in his dissection of this heart hungry, soul starved age. However, this is no pulpit thumping, Furman instead offering a modern take on Brian Wilson’s teenage symphonies to God, where the divine is approached with pop-touched sweetness and reflective sincerity.

Jan & Dean, Scritti Politti, Dr. Dog and Jonathan Richman all spring to mind at various points, as well as the aforementioned Beach Boy, and if one didn’t have Furman’s guiding hand in the liner notes – which begin “This work is dedicated to the glory of God and the consolation of man” – it might mostly seem boy-girl, bittersweet love stuff. But he’s hardly coy about what’s really going on beneath the surface, particularly in the songs that bookened the album, most especially charmingly possessed rocker “American Soil”:

Every race has its place, every nation fights for species survival,
I’m a Jew through and through and I’m about to write you a Bible
Now let me take your hand and lead you through
the twisted hallways of the house of song
We got the magazine wallpaper and the million dollar bills on the lawn
And I can feel God taking his eyes off us
We were born for American soil

The malaise of this cruel, cruel world is poked at with finger snapping aplomb, and there’s no reason some lovelorn youngsters can’t find solace and understanding here but Furman is courting a lover not of this world even as he sorts out the depression and drama interaction with our fellow beings brings. With the aim of “real protest” against the state of affairs that is the human condition in the 21st century, The Year Of No Returning digs through his reactions to these times, which he states have been “variously dissociation, anger, escapism, despair, masochism, self-pity, bitterness, etc.” It’s easy enough to relate to Furman’s POV as well as his thesis that “We are almost constantly either working or being entertained, and in this way we are always anesthetized. This threatens to turn us into monsters.”

In a voice like a cracked, wild prayer, Furman is after more than “a church you can take to the mall.” If one allows this album full purchase it can till up some heavy feelings, the truths here piercing one in tender, ignored spots, the soul kicked awake and called to action.

Willie Nile

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Baby_Willie_Ride

Willie Nile isn’t a new artist. In fact, he’s a nearly 40 year veteran with a rich catalog who’s worked the folk joints of Bleecher Street, the clubs and theatres of Europe, and every sort of U.S. venue that would have him over the years. But the clarity, captivating force, and saving-up-the-best-damn-songs-from-a-lifetime quality of his eighth studio effort, American Ride (released June 25), smacks of a particularly auspicious debut filled with roughhewn wisdom, rock ‘n’ roll grit, and no small amount of faith stimulus. American Ride is pure inspirational force, kindred spirit to Bruce Springsteen and Alejandro Escovedo, sharing some of these established greats’ mixture of boldness and intimacy but bettering their over-praised recent albums by being more street level, immediate, and filled with insightful humor as well as abundant heart. More than any of his American peers, the latest from this enduring New York City powerhouse carries on the spirit of Joe Strummer through tales simultaneously tough and tender, the view from the gutter articulated in ways that makes one want to reach out a hand, or at least open up a bit to the shared human condition.

Beginning with a count-off followed by a doo-wop derived chant, American Ride instantly plants one in front of a sweaty, leave it all on the stage band hell-bent on knocking our socks off, roaring, “This is our time! This is our place! This is our moment in the human race!” And by gum, one believes him as Nile pulls us into the present, peeling away the noise to get at what really makes us feel alive, what makes us hurt, what makes us ache and long for better, more, whatever.

Willie Nile by Cristina Arrigoni

Willie Nile by Cristina Arrigoni

God is here, too, but a bare-knuckled scrapper on the side of empty-pocketed outsiders just longing to be free of fear and basic want. “God Laughs” and “Holy War” are simply two of the finest glosses on the Spirit in the Sky to come along in a decade, just the laughter tinged tools we need in this hyper-partisan time of uber-religiosity. It’s fitting this album was helped into the world with a PledgeMusic.com campaign, the People’s Record in a metaphorical sense that jives well with the universalist vibe here, a bushel of hard won hope to provide sustenance for anyone who needs it.

The surging dreamer’s energy that infuses many tracks is balanced by short, sharp bursts of humor and dark understanding, a crucial strand on American Ride perhaps seen most clearly on a perfect, inspired cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” which also cements Nile’s bona fides as a dyed-in-the-wool New York musician, as much a part of that city’s storied soundtrack as The Ramones, Patti Smith, and Dion. From the Ellis Island touched “The Crossing” to jaunty, only in the City That Never Sleeps “Sunrise In New York City” to the deftly detailed “Life On Bleecker Street,” Nile nails down big chunks of NYC’s character in succinctly carved verses.

American Ride is most assuredly a career high point – and a lock for DI’s Favorite Albums of 2013 – but even more exciting is the sense that Willie Nile and his crack band are just getting rolling, a band of brothers dedicated to bringing us through the storms of the early 21st century led by a survivor who hasn’t succumb to cynicism despite a long career that’s seen half-talents and flavors of the month snatch the glory and gold that should go to an American rock treasure like Nile. His able pen here and battered-but-unbowed performances make it clear that he’s far from broken, and he’s not ready to let the rest of us falter either. Amen, brother, amen!

Pick up the album HERE!

Afrolicious

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Afrolicious

Afrolicious

The underlying pulses of soul and feel are what makes music, regardless of genre, ripple with life beyond a numerical exercise and display of skill, and neither can be manufactured – the stink of falseness and premeditation reveals the truth of what’s inside. San Francisco-based Afrolicious drips buckets of feel and soul, a soundwave tsunami that performs the aural equivalent of a confident dancer spinning and dipping one as bass vibrates the hair on your neck and arms, the air suddenly humid as rhythm you sense physically as much as hear make you lean into the twirl.

Truth be told, DI is super duper picky about any modern African influenced music, where so much of it seems like a faded copy of a copy of what Fela, King Sunny Ade and Salif Keita pioneered so crisply. There’s also the inevitable transposition of bringing this music into an American context, which usually only succeeds to varying degrees and often lets the political and social messages override the pure, direct enjoyment factor that is never forgotten by the African originators, who all understand that unless they move folks’ bodies they are never going to move their minds.

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In nearly every respect, Afrolicious’ full-length debut album, California Dreaming (pick it up here) skirts these pitfalls, crooning seductively, “I just love how music makes me feel – so real.” This long-player is a modern answer to the heady – intellectually and groove-a-liciously – work of Gary Bartz Ntu Troop, Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes, and other 70s electric jazz innovators, where the dance floor is never out of mind but the conversation, largely focused on the betterment and better enjoyment of the species, isn’t dumbed down.

Born from a weekly party founded in 2006 by brothers Joe and Oz McGuire, aka DJs Pleasuremaker and Señor Oz, this SF collective keeps the conversation deliciously catholic, offering echoes of Nyabinghi, dub flourishes, polished, propulsive soul music, Brazilian flutters, Blaxploitation soundtrack grit, and some of the swankiest horn get down since Prince whipped up a Madhouse. With monikers like Qique Padilla, Diamond Vibes, Billy Magic and Fresh is Life, one knows immediately that this band is ready to get into character for spaceship ride back to the Motherland by way of this Otherland. The winds of Africa surely blow in these tracks but also Michael Jackson at his slamming Off The Wall best (“Revolution”) and Deee-Lite (“Horizons” and the generally sonically rich undertow of the whole enterprise), the latter a major compliment in DI’s book – those that think that band was a one-hit wonder need to spend a lil’ quality time with Dewdrops In The Garden (1994) to see just how ahead of their time Lady Miss Kier and the boys were (taste here).

Afrolicious is THE heat live, but they’ve bettered the competition by crafting a studio incarnation that high kicks and bounces in a wholly alluring way. The production is clean and present but consistently tweaked with fine little touches that one picks up on subsequent spins, the background lushly filling in as much as the central players in the frame over time. The collective just celebrated their sixth anniversary this month, and based on California Dreaming, there’s still plenty in the tank for many miles ahead.

Uncle Pooch

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Baby_Pooch_Intro

Hearing the name Uncle Pooch one might be forgiven for thinking they’d come across a character from Homer Simpsons’ stint as a cartoon dog with Itchy & Scratchy, but press play on the Seattle-based band’s latest long-players – Oneirophrenia and Untitle aka Sonarch (pick them up here) – and one encounters a genuinely dangerous vibe. Predominantly instrumental, this is unmistakably metal in origin but slashed through with diamond tipped punk drive and freaky psychedelic verve. Pile driving intense, Uncle Pooch is also never less than absorbing, music perhaps best understood cranked to “11” while one does countless bong rips pants-less atop a massive subwoofer.

Baby_Pooch_Oneiro

One is forced to use broad strokes in describing the undulating writhing and skittering of this pair of releases because Uncle Pooch isn’t like other bands. Really. Yes, moments like the album-side-length title cut from Oneirophrenia suggest what Metallica might be like without all that Hetfield and the more ambient tangents hint at a bad tripping Yes, but these guys are so dedicated in pursuing the shadowy corridors of their own rabbit hole that they’ve abandoned any attempts to fit in with the math rockers and progressive metallers. Put another way, this path is for their steps alone, but those who’ve suckled the brute teats of Clutch and Mastadon are as likely to find as much succor here as hippies who like it heavy and 70s electric jazz aficionados who’ve never stopped missing early Mahavishnu Orchestra – not to mention lovers of fellow Seattle killer Skerik’s more Crack Sabbath-y projects.

Perhaps what’s most impressive on this overlapping pair is how Uncle Pooch doesn’t meander aimlessly but also doesn’t give way to overt melodies and sweetners. There is motion and it is forward and outward and inward and upside down, all in quick succession, but never is this music listless and there’s always some kinda mutant groove. The band’s own nutshell description from their bio moves the conversation forward a bit too:

Like the ostracized Dr. Moreau and his LSD-obsessed assistant, Uncle Pooch surgically conjoins creatures of different species. The vivisection of grindcore, free-jazz and good old-fashioned thrash spawned what they’ve dubbed, “Instrumental-Metal-Jazz”.

Baby_Pooch_Sonarch

The musicianship of the core quartet – Shane Smith (bass), Tony Stevens (guitar), Denali Williams (drums) and Greg Sinibaldi (experimental wind instrumentalist) [since these recordings Sinbaldi has left U.P. replaced by “avant-guitarist” Zach Stewart] – is high powered, intense, and a testament to heavy rock’s lure for finger-knotting champs. Guests like The True Spokes’ six-string whiz R.L. Heyer hold their own but this is Uncle’s thang and one adjusts to it and not the other way around. Rarely is music so uncompromising also so engaging and exciting. Uncle Pooch isn’t work, it’s an experience and one any fan of darkly colored adventurous music should have.

This is also somehow connected to a fascinating Illuminati-esque organization called The International Brotherhood of Consequential Truth, which warrants further investigation. Any group that names an album after ”a hallucinatory, dream-like state caused by several conditions such as prolonged sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, or drugs” should inspire one to go deeper.

Fidlar

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Baby_Fidlar

Fidlar make one want to hot-wire a red sports car and kidnap your grandma for a Hangover style debauched weekend in Branson, MO – oh it can be done BYOB (booze, blow and/or balloons of nitrous), especially since you’re granny, freak that she is, looks all sweet and innocent. More simply, Fidlar’s self-titled debut (released January 22) (pick it up here) may be some of the best cheap thrills since someone figured out No-Doz was more fun chopped up and snorted and chased with a few chugs of NyQuil. Everything on this joyously nihilistic, punky hootenanny yelps with exclamation points, a clarion call to do little else but grab ass, skate and get loaded.

“I just want to get really high/ Smoke weed until I die/ I don’t ever want to get a job/ ‘Cause I’m fucked up today and nothing’s wrong!”

However, it’s all a bit of a faint because there’s actually a decent amount of thought and emerging skill to Fidlar. Sure, judged only by their lyrical content one might come away thinking these Los Angeles youngsters are drunken, potential date-raping pieces of shit – high brow, evolved stuff is not the topic at hand. But, the music is taut, edgy and hook-tastic, and cuts like “Five To Nine,” “No Waves” and “Max Can’t Surf” hint at the same subterranean sturdiness that powered The Jam and The Ramones. Hell, no one thought The Replacements would turn into the guys who made Pleased To Meet Me and Don’t Tell A Soul when Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash came out, and Fidlar carries a similar hints of greatness – snotty and shit-faced but turning a crusty eye towards broader horizons. The pummeling piano interjections and surfy overtones add cool ruffles, and nearly every cut sweeps one up in a giddy, misbehaved wave – high tide indeed.

Having screamed about cheap beer and budget cocaine with Fidlar and a mildly possessed crowd at The Fillmore last November, DI can attest to how much bloody fuckin’ fun this band is live. They really sweat it out in a delightful way and the tunes work even better in the flesh, which is impressive given what a blast the studio version is. If ya like it rowdy and naughty you got a new favorite band, kids.

A note to the makers of Spring Breakers: When the DVD comes out include an option to soundtrack your click-click-pop-pop T&A assault with Fidlar’s eponymous album instead of shitty Skrillex and the other Bomb Squad thieving folks on the theatrical score. These guys just get the mood way more right. ‘Nuff said.

Chris Haugen

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Chris Haugen

Chris Haugen

The problem with many gifted guitarists is a tendency to show off technique, courting the spotlight with attention grabbing solos and fireworks. More impressive is a six-stringer that lets the instrument speak to the needs of the song, his fingers the lubricant to a broader conversation. SF’s Chris Haugen is the latter, a player of great natural feel, artful restraint, and collaborative empathy. Where his all-instrumental debut, Seahorse Rodeo (review), put him in line with Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges, his new eponymous album (pick it up here and listen below) is a grand piece of California rock in the spirit of vintage solo Stephen Stills, the playful side of Neil Young, and Later Days-era Mother Hips.

More than ever this very gifted guitarist – who spends a chunk of his time these days picking with Impound pals Poor Man’s Whiskey – has crafted an almost beatifically West Coast joint, a vibe announced by the shot of Haugen barefoot on the beach at sunset/sunrise on the front and palm trees and aqua blue skies adorning the back cover. Place matters, and clearly California is in the bloodstream of this gently wooing set. Haugen possesses a wining voice that flows nearly as smoothly as his guitar lines, which predictably give one a little tingle they’re so right on. This is precisely the soundtrack one wants to go with an afternoon of cold beer, a pinch of California’s best crop, and good friends, or perhaps a choice companion for tooling solo down Highway 1, one’s thoughts and this sweet music mingling as the waves crash and forests rise along the yellow lines.

While there are some lovely instrumentals here, it’s cool to hear Haugen expanding his range, showing off more than just his skill with his signature instrument. And he’s clearly got great instincts for putting together a top-notch band surrounding himself with Mark Degli Antoni (keys, samples), Mike Sugar (bass), Kate Gaffney (backing vocals), Asher Fulero (organ) and a particularly in-tune, effervescently right-on Wally Ingram (drums, percussion). This ensemble feels like it has legs and more music to make together, so keep your fingers crossed for live appearances. For now, there’s this finely wrought album to spend quality time with.

Gods Of Cock Rock

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GOCR performs tonight, November 16, at the Trip in Santa Monica, CA. And you can download their new album for free by visiting their website.

Rock ‘n’ roll needs lovers to endure. Fans are great and they keep folding money in one’s wallet and gas in the tour van, but rock in the archetypal, not-fade-away sense needs ardent acolytes who adore it so much it makes them ache and dream and feel alive like almost nothing else. A certain irrational gusto is required of such passionate folks, and Southern California-based Gods Of Cock Rock are undisguised in their all-in, whole hearted love, particularly on their third release, Dead Rock Stars (download here).

The 6-track EP is an open letter to rock’s past, present and future, taking to task the wasters who squander their fame, opportunities and talents with early, needless deaths while elsewhere giddily conjecturing about all the seminal moments in rock’s history they could visit with a time machine. For this warmly winning duo – whose name suggests metal splatter but whose sound is closer to Tom Petty – the genre retains its mysteries and magic even in the face of beloved venues becoming Jiffy Lubes and parking lots.

The living room jam roots of GOCR are still evident on Dead Rock Stars but their confidence and reach is palpably growing, the road beckoning on sweet closer “The Way Home” and the challenges of impinging adulthood addressed on “Hell Or The Altar.” The Gods have a knack for being funny but that’s leavened with some satisfyingly righteous anger here. In this way, they are growing up and their music reflects the longer view that only time brings. That it also sways in a really nice way gives one hope they’re on the way to something that will do their heroes proud.