New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: latin music

A Ubiquitous Habibi Pop Star Celebrates with a Career Retrospective

Twenty years ago in New York, you couldn’t buy a falafel without hearing Ishtar Alabina‘s slinky songs blasting from somebody’s speakers or boombox. The Moroccan-Jewish queen of Romany and Andalucian-tinged habibi pop is still out there: she played here in 2019, touring behind a greatest-hits album simply titled Alabina and streaming at Spotify.

The string synth swooshes mightily as the opening track, also titled Alabina – her signature song, more or less – kicks in with a little Spanish guitar flourish and clip-clop percussion. The guys in the band sing the first verse in Spanish before their frontwoman swoops in, singing in Arabic and bending her way to a stark crescendo. If you’ve been listening to Middle Eastern music over the past couple of decades, you know this song.

She and the band played a lot of Spanish and Latin music over the years. This album has a lot of those songs. There’s the spiky, Gipsy Kings-influenced Baile Maria, as well as La Cubanita, a salsa song with a steady dancefloor thud and a fleeting flamenco guitar solo. The group’s male contingent sing most of Ya Mama, a pretty straight-up salsa tune, as well as the bouncy Tierra Santa, the closest thing to the Gipsy Kings here. The only cover here, Lolole is a habibi pop version of the Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

Sawash was an early attempt to blend some reggaeton into the sound. There are also a trio of tunes, Lolai, Salaama and Salaam la Paz – which mash up flamenco pop and what would morph into dabke music.

The group’s biggest hits on their home turf were the most distinctly Middle Eastern ones, where they were more likely to use an oud and a kanun rather than guitars to spice all that lush synthesized orchestration. They’re all in minor keys and catchy as hell. Venga, a bitingly irresistible duet, is one of the best of the bunch, while Lamouni has microtonal violin and a rippling kanun solo on the intro.

Purists may hear this and laugh, but Alabina was a gateway drug to a better world for thousands of non-Arabic speakers. One summer day in the late 90s, a future daily New York music blog owner walked out of Rashid Sales on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn with a Umm Kulthuum concert cassette and an Alabina album much like this. In the months afterward, they would get plenty of time on an old walkman. Those cassettes still exist; the walkman sadly does not.

A Titanic, Imaginatively Orchestrated Salsa Swing Album From the Iconic Ruben Blades

What an inspiration it is to see the most fearlessly original paradigm-shifter of all the salsa dura pioneers of the 70s still pushing the envelope. Ruben Blades‘ new album Salswing with Roberto Delgado & Orquesta – streaming at Spotify – is aptly titled, a lavishly symphonic latin jazz project. Blades’ voice is a bit more wintry than it was forty years ago, but he tackles the material here – an imaginative mashup of jazz standards and salsa – with his usual soul and gravitas. Listen closely and you discover that he’s overdubbed his own coros. Hearing him hit those high notes on the second track reaffirms his indominable stature as leader of the old school – which in his case makes him just as much a leader of the new school.

Delgado’s Panamanian ensemble and his colorful, edgy charts make a good match. They open with Paula C, the lushness enhanced by the Venezuela Strings Recording Ensemble. Guest Eduardo Pineda’s Rhodes piano bubbles amid the brassy gusts, trumpeter Juan Carlos “Wichy” Lopez reaching for the stratosphere and nailing it.

Blades lands somewhere between Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in a blazing, ebullient take of Pennies from Heaven, trombone soloist Xito Lovell cascading down out of a sunburst brass break. The textures and exchanges between the reeds and brass in the instrumental Mambo Gil have grit to match their majesty, alto saxophonist Jahaziel Arrocha taking a tantalizingly brief, spiraling solo.

Blades goes into nuanced crooner mode for Ya No Me Duele over the bandleader’s strolling bass pulse, Tom Kubis adding flourishes on alto sax amid the towering brass. The vocals on Watch What Happens are bordering on breathless, effectively driving home the song’s ironclad optimism over the sudden swells of the orchestra. Blades reaches for similar intensity, but with a more imploring feel in Cobarde and its intricate, understated polyrhythms.

Lopez’s balmy, straightforward trumpet solo flies over an elegant midtempo swing beat in Do I Hear Four?, the group’s counterpoint rising toward inferno levels. There’s a little more drama and mystery in Blades’ voice in Canto Niche, Juan Berna switching between piano and echoey Rhodes. The Way You Look Tonight is the closest thing to a coyly seductive, straight-up fifties Sinatra swing tune here,

Blades winds up the record with a couple of slinky barn-burners. Ricky Rodriguez’s low-key, tumbling piano and Alejandro “Chichisin” Castillo’s smoky baritone sax anchor the dynamically-shifting, colorful Contrabando, Raul Aparicio’s accordion popping in unexpectedly. Similarly, Tambó rises from a streetcorner intro from the percussion section to an insistent, driving oldschool salsa groove. A titanic achievement from a huge, semi-rotating ensemble that also includes percussionists Ademir Berrocal, Raul Rivera, Carlos Perez Bido, Jose Ramon Guerra and Luis Mitil; Francisco Delvecchio and Avenicio Nunez on trombones; Carlos Ubarte, Ivan Navarro and Luis Carlos Perez on saxes; Milton Salcedo, Dino Nugent, Ceferino Caban and Dario Boente on piano; Carlos Quiros on bass; Carlos Camacho on vibes; and Abraham Dubarron on guitar.

Funny and Troubling Songs For a Funny and Troubling Time

Good things come in fours today: here’s a mini-playlist of videos and streams to get your synapses firing on all cylinders

The woman who brought you the devious Tina Turner parody What’s Math Got to Do With It, singer/sax player Stephanie Chou has a provocatively philosophical new single, Continuum Hypothesis. It’s sort of art-rock, sort of jazz – a catchy, dancing, anthemic duo with pianist Jason Yeager, dedicated to mathematician Paul Cohen. According to this hypothesis, there is no set whose cardinality is strictly between that of the integers and the real numbers. This seems self-evident, but, based on Cohen’s work in set theory, Chou sees it as essentially unknowable, at least with what we know now. Snag a free download at Lions with Wings’ Bandcamp page while you can.

Here’s Erik Della Penna – the guitar half of erudite, lyrical superduo Kill Henry Sugar with drummer Dean Sharenow – doing a very, very subtle, rustically shuffling, Dylanesque acoustic protest song, Change the Weather:

I’m gonna make predictions
I’m gonna make it rain
I’m gonna put restrictions
On hearing you complain…
I’m gonna change the language
To make you change your mind
I’m gonna make predictions
That you can get behind

Swedish songwriter Moneira a.k.a. Daniela Dahl has a new single, The Bird (Interesting to See) It’s almost eight minutes of minimalist, anthemic art-rock piano and mellotron vibes, an oblique memoir of a troubled childhood, “a bird trapped in an open cage.” Sound familiar?

Natalia Lafourcade sings a slow, plush, epic take of the brooding Argentine suicide ballad Alfonsina y El Mar with Ljova orchestrating himself as a one-man string ensemble with his fadolin multitracks. You’d never know it was just one guy.

A Subtly Powerful Album of Protest Jazz From Afro-Peruvian Bandleader Gabriel Alegria

“Social distancing.”

Ewwwwww.

Of all the oxymorons in lockdowner newspeak, that’s the most odious. In terms of being self-contradictory, it’s second only to “remote learning” – a very, very, very, very remote approximation of the real thing.

Trumpeter Gabriel Alegría‘s new album of protest jazz – streaming at Spotify – is titled Social Distancing. It’s almost all-instrumental, and the few moments that are not speak to healing, or are cached in metaphorical terms rather than leveling any specific accusation. Yet as a parable of and reaction to the fascist horror of 2020, it’s unsurpassed.

The centerpiece is The Mask, a stark urban noir soul tableau which is almost all bass and percussion until horns and violin join in shivering terror behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved.

Kitty O’Meara reads her lockdown poem And the People Stayed Home in the opening track, And the People, which is balmy yet somber, Alegria terse and resonant alongside Alex Gonzalez’s violin, backed by Jocho Velasquez’s acoustic guitar, Mario Cuba’s bass, and Hugo Alcázar’s drums. The group reprise it in Spanish at the end of the album: its message of hope and transformation (but not in a bastardized New Abnormal way) went viral a year ago.

The rest of the album explores a wide range of dynamics, with both optimism and some searing critiques. In Mirando El Shingo, a catchy tropical anthem, the percussion section work a gusty groove as the bass dances, Alegria and then saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía sail overhead. The next track, titled COVID-19, has both a boisterous New Orleans-flavored rhythm but also acidic twelve-tone harmony grounded in Russell Ferrante’s piano and the guitar. Leguía’s modal solo has an aptly distant ominousness: five out of six people had natural immunity, but the fake news media kept the fear blaring 24/7.

George and Breonna, a shout-out to the late George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, is built around a festive exchange of trumpet and sax riffs over a cantering 12/8 groove, in the Mingus tradition: exuberant song, grimly relevant title. The New Normal turns out to be a slinky organ tune with Monklike blues phantasmagoria from Yuri Juarez’s guitar and an increasingly dissociative raveup from the rest of the band.

Leguía switches to soprano sax for Any Day Now, whose initial, jaunty brightness grows more enigmatic as the harmonies get more complex and the percussion kick up a storm: she delivers another killer, modally-spiced solo midway through. Amaranta is an uneasy, airy take on late 50s Miles Davis and the best song on the album. The false start into a waltz, Alegria’s sobering, crystalline solo over crashing cymbals, and Leguía’s spine-tingling legato are just a few highlights.

Driven by energetic trumpet and sax over a churning groove, Octavio y Natalia was inspired by Alegria’s and Juarez’s kids playing together. Both dads want to make sure their kids get to enjoy a normal childhood, but knowing that their lives could be imperiled by racist hate is part of the picture. This one’s on the shortlist for best jazz albums of 2021.

Celebrating the Spanish-Language Side of a Great Mexican-American Rock Bandleader

Patricia Vonne has been a fierce advocate for immigrant rights since bursting onto the Americana scene right around the turn of the century. She has an artistic bloodline: her great uncle, Guillermo Aguirre y Fierro, was an acclaimed Mexican poet, and her brother is filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. For those who aren’t already acquainted, a good way to get to know her fiery anthems and poignant ballads is her 2015 career retrospective, Viva Bandolera, streaming at Spotify.

It’s a long record, seventeen tracks. It’s missing one of her best songs, the escape anthem Blood on the Tracks (a title that took a lot of nerve to appropriate, but Vonne validated that hubris). Still, it’s packed with plenty of big concert favorites. Vonne’s richly arranged and orchestrated catalog comprises songs in both English and Spanish, this collection focusing on the Spanish material.

The self-described “blood drenched love song” Traeme Paz (Bring Me Peace) opens the album, Vonne’s wounded, full-throated delivery over a lushy syncopated web of guitars. The similarly aching, swaying minor-key ranchera rock anthem Dulce Refugio (Sweet Refuge) draws on an Aguirre y Fierro poem, Insomnio. Vonne flexes her signature castanets in El Marinero y La Sirena (The Sailor and the Mermaid), looking at the lure of the mermaid archetype from both male and female perspectives.

The album’s bristling, mariachi-rock title track celebrates a female bandit who gets sweet revenge on the Texas Rangers who murdered her husband. The lusciously jangly Qué Maravilla (How Marvelous) may be a love song, but there’s a persistent dark undercurrent. With its spiraling leads and inventive drums, Guitarras y Castañuelas – the title track from Vonne’s second album – is a sultry shout-out to her cultural heritage on both sides of the Atlantic. Lowlit by accordion, violin and a glimmering piano solo, the subtly bolero-tinged (The Orchard of St. Vincent) is a salute to Federico Garcia Lorca.

The one song here that hasn’t stood the test of time is Torera – it’s no less gauche for an armed woman to kill a defenseless animal than it is for a man. Vonne builds a suspenseful Sevillian flamenco atmosphere in La Gitana de Triana (The Triana Gypsy) and follows that with one of her most searing rock anthems, Mujeres Desaparecidas (Missing Women), memorializing the scores of Juarez women abducted and murdered in transnational drug wars.

Echoing with ominous tremolo guitar, the briskly pulsing Fuente Vaqueros (Fountain of the Cowboy), reflects on Lorca’s early years. Vonne follows that with a couple of drinking songs, the crescendoing, reggae-tinged nocturne Fiesta Sangria and the reverb-drenched southwesten gothic anthem Tequileros, a salute to bootleg hooch.

La Lomita de Santa Cruz (The Cross on the Hill) has a similar, moodily twangy energy, a reflection on keeping cultural traditions alive. With its somber trumpet, the breakup ballad Soledad has a towering angst. The last vocal number here, Severina, is Vonne’s tender dedication to her grandmother. One side of Vonne that’s been overlooked is that she also writes great instrumentals, underscored by the album’s closing spaghetti western theme, Mexicali de Chispa (Mexicali Spark), one of several collaborations here with her filmmaker brother.

A Richly Individualistic Celebration of the Astor Piazzolla Centenary

The Astor Piazzolla centenary has disappeared without a trace so far this year. Like the Beethoven 250 celebrations, one can only imagine how many Piazzolla-centric concerts have been cancelled by the lockdowners. Piazzolla’s Argentine home turf may have a history as a beacon of democracy for the rest of Latin America, but that history has been scarred by intermittent bouts of brutal repression and 2020 was one of those years.

As you would expect, there have been a lot of celebratory Piazzolla albums released recently as well. One of the most imaginative and original of the bunch is the Astor 2020:  La Historia Continúa compilation – streaming at Spotify  assembled by guitarist Adam Tully and featuring an allstar cast of nuevo tango talent. Some of these compositions reference Piazzolla classics; others offer a similarly innovative sample of the creativity Piazzolla has inspired over the years.

Pantaleon, by the Pablo Murgier Cuarteto makes an absolutely gorgeous opener, Alex Musatov’s shiveringly expressive violin over the bandleader’s lyrical, neoromantic piano, Lautaro Muñoz’s bass and Federico Biraben’s bandoneon slowly busting a hole in the clouds. Flutters, sudden flares and an achingly soaring violin solo complete this masterpiece.

Agustín Guerrero’s Ciberespacio 2020 gets a bizarre, blippy synth intro from the bandleader before Julio Coviello’s bandoneon and Martín Rodríguez’s guitar hit a tricky but blazing, rhythmically challenging King Crimson drive. An icy, bassy synth interlude takes the song further toward Emerson Lake and Palmer terrain.

Exequiel Mantega’s elegant precise piano chords and Agustín Silberlieb’s low-key flute mingle in the Fain-Mantega project’s Construcción, finally rising to a leaping intensity. The circling polyrhythms between Cesar Rago’s violin, Fernando Otero’s electric piano, Tully’s guitar, Juan Pablo Navarro’s bass, Patricio Villarejo’s cello and eventually Nicolás Enrich’s bandoneon in Otero’s Amarilla are starkly, hypnotically intoxicating. Faro, by Martín Sued is a rivetingly carnivalesque solo bandoneon piece rich with eerie tritones and strange harmonies that grow more and more anthemic.

Tully and his trio contribute Trilonga 2020, with a slowly crescendoing contrast between spiky guitar and Shino Ohnaga’s murky, eerily hypnotic piano, with the occasional role reversal or boogie-woogie interlude. A noir clave slink from Adrián Enríquez’s piano anchors Bernardo Monk’s En el Camino, the most triumphantly orchestral number here, with Javier Kase’s violin, Emiliano Guerrero’s bandoneon and Monk’s sax conversing overhead. His increasingly badass solo is one of the album’s high points.

Manija, by Los Púa Abajo is a surreal mashup of Django Reinhardt swing and nuevo tango, fueled by the incisive, spiraling twin guitars of Ángel Colacilli and Leandro Coratella.. Adios Astor, by bandoneonist Adrián Ruggiero begins as a steady, rather menacing funeral march, hits an austere, wounded Facundo Canosapiano piano interlude that Nicolás Acosta’s bass brings up slowly, the bandoneon and then Coratella’s guitar delivering a defiantly triumphant, “told you so” theme to the foreground before a chillingly muted ending.

Ohnaga’s grittily insistent, brooding piano pairs off with Emilio Longo’s similarly incisive, dancing, circling bass in La Tomajena. The concluding Odisea, by violinist Ramiro Gallo is surprisingly short, at under five minutes, and bizarrely multistylistic, built around a jovial oldschool soul riff, followed by increasingly complex variations from his quintet with Adrián Enríquez on piano, Federico Santisteba on bandoneon, Lautaro Muñoz on bass and Santiago Vera Candioti on guitar. It’s as sophisticated as it is ridiculous. How fortuitous that Tully and crew would wrap up the recording just days before the lockdown.

Two Gorgeous, Rare Accordion Concertos to Celebrate an Icon

In celebration of the Astor PIazzolla centenary, classical accordionist Jovica Ivanović and the Ukrainian Chamber Orchestra have released a whole album of two of the rarest pieces in the symphonic repertoire: the accordion concerto.

Titled Piazzolla and Galliano, it features majestic works by the iconic Argentine bandoneonist and also by the great Richard Galliano and is streaming at Spotify. Both pieces are absolutely gorgeous and meticulously performed. That both soloist (Ivanovic is Serbian) and orchestra come from accordion-rich cultures might have something to do with it. In a smart bit of programming, the decision to program these two works together, rather than Piazzolla and rehashed Piazzolla from one of his innumerable acolytes, pays off mightily.

Ivanović and the ensemble open with Piazzolla’s Aconcagua, which begins with an insistent but light-footed pulse, staccato accordion matched by the strings and spiced with sweeping piano cascades. The first accordion solo is characteristically dynamic: echoey but traditionally tangoesque, then when the orchestra drop out Ivanović gets to show off some jaunty lyricism. The group bring back an elegant sweep that never lets up no matter how turbulent the music grows.

Ivanović takes his time with a sagacious, reflective solo to open the moderato second movement. Again, the balance between judicious piano and lush strings is striking, even as Ivanović bring back the delicately dancing introductory theme. They attack the gusty concluding movement with a similar dynamism, its bracing chromatic moments, bursting rhythms and momentary detours into wistfulness. 

The opening movement of Galliano’s Opale Concerto is marked allegro furioso: Ivanović’s machete accents and icepick staccato contrast with the looming unease and Tchaikovskian color from the orchestra, as well as his rapidfire lines over a catchy, anthemic bassline from massed low strings.

The lyrical variations, artful echo effects and bittersweetly reflective moments diverge momentarily toward a brooding tarantella in the moderato malinconico second movement: it’s arguably the album’s most captivating interlude. Ivanović and the orchestra provide an air-cushioned ride over some pretty rocky terrain as the coda descends to a nocturnal grandeur, and then a final salute which is the only place where the Piazzolla influence cannot be denied. What an impact he made, and it’s still resonating almost thirty years after we lost him.

The South Florida Jazz Orchestra Smolder and Blaze Through Latin-Tinged Rick Margitza Tunes

Several years back, bassist Chuck Bergeron and his South Florida Jazz Orchestra put out an absolutely incendiary album featuring a six-trumpet frontline. Their latest release, Cheap Thrills – streaming at Spotify – is more subtle, joining forces with Paris-based saxophonist Rick Margitza for a diverse and cleverly orchestrated album of his compositions. There are plenty of thrills here, but the title is sarcastic: this is sophisticated fun. Margitza likes latin rhythms, which the group excel at, so the material here is a particularly good fit.

They open with the title track, a clustering clave tune that hits an uneasy chromatic drive, then the orchestra back away for spare guitar and piano solos from John Hart and Martin Bejerano, respectively. Margitza follows with uneasy modal sax over Bejerano’s spare incisions. From there they dip to a more suspenseful pulse and some neat polyrhythmic development

The opening coyness of The Place to Be is a red herring, as this jaunty little stroll gets more complex with lustrous reeds and horns. It’s a study in how radically different moods, from blithe to noir, can be created from exactly the same materials. Brace Yourself, an ebullient cha-cha, also has a funny intro, Hart and Margitza parsing its vampy changes up to where the brass takes it deeper toward salsa and then a series of amusing false endings.

Widow’s Walk – like many of these tracks, a new arrangement of an older small-group number – follows a brooding tangent from a pensive six-note piano figure up to a brass-fueled blaze, a gently wan Margitza solo over a bossa-tinged groove, a moody Chris Jentsch-ish guitar solo and a coda that seems completely out of place for a lament. Obviously, there could be more to this story: otherwise, it could be a Frank Foster tune from the 50s.

Gritty low brass gives a clenched-teeth intensity to 45 Pound Hound, then the group swing it with a jubilant Brian Lynch trumpet solo, Margitza taking it further into the blues before the full orchestra build slowly toward a fiery conclusion. It’s the most enigmatic, most subtly powerful number here.

Premonition is one of those one-take wonders that left the band and its leader pretty breathless when they realized they’d nailed its puffing, distantly ominous syncopation: bass and low brass figure heavily, Margitza’s solo guiding the band into cheerier terrain. Walls, originally a genially shuffling small-group number, gets fleshed out with flourishes from brass, piano and a scrambling Bejerano solo. It’s the album’s most trad composition.

The group bring back the clave in Sometimes I Have Rhythm,with its tongue-in-cheek references to a famous tune and an unexpectedly chill, soulful Greg Gisbert trumpet solo. Margitza’s swirls lead the group up to a jovial peak: once again, they show off the song’s salsa roots at the end. The lone cover here is a plush, increasingly slinky latinized and sometimes completely unrecognizable take of Embraceable You.

Interesting charts and strong performances from a group that also includes reedmen Gary Keller, Gary Lindsay, Ed Calle, Jason Kush, David Leon, Phil Doyle and Mike Brignola; trumpeters John Daversa, Jason Carder, Alex Norris, Pete Francis, Augie Haas, Jesus Mato and Jared Hal; trombonists Dante Luciani, John Kricker, Andrew Peal, Derek Pyle, Haden Mapel and Major Bailey; percussionist Xavier Desandre Navarre and drummer John Yarling.

Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo Put Out a Gorgeous, Bittersweetly Intimate Album of Boleros

Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón has released some of the most exhilarating and forward-looking jazz in recent years, from his exploration of his Puerto Rican roots, to a string quartet collaboration. His latest album El Arte Del Bolero – streaming at Bandcamp – is much more straightforward but no less dynamic. Recorded live for a webcast last September, it’s a mix of classic boleros played as an intimate duo show with his longtime pianist collaborator Luis Perdomo, the guy who’s probably the ideal candidate for this kind of material.

Both artists had already played many of these tunes together over the years, although not typically in a duo setting. And much as boleros – on this side of the Atlantic, anyway – tend to be melancholy or mysterious, the duo span a huge range of emotion with them here. They also don’t constrain the songs to a bolero rhythm.

They take their time to open the album with an expansive take of Benny More’s Como Fue, Zenon playing the vocal line solo with a surprising mistiness before Perdomo enters the picture. Zenon rises to a gracefully leaping optimism as Perdomo lowlights his chords, then channels his usual gravitas in his own solo. At the end, they bring the song full circle.

They follow with a practically ten-minute, hauntingly spacious version of Alma Adentro. the Sylvia Rexach classic and title cut from Zenon’s 2012 album. Zenon nails the song’s searching, practically desperate quality, Perdomo echoing the theme with his judicious, emphatic chordal work and variations. And yet, as Zenon does occasionally through the set, he offers hope with a crystalline, melodica-like tone in the upper registers.

He rises to a more insistent drive in the third track, Ese Hastío, a remake of the Ray Barreto hit Piensa En Mi. Again, Perdomo anchors it with his lingering, soberly glistening lines. Zenon takes inspiration from how the great tres player and songwriter Arsenio Rodriguez reputedly wrote La Vida Es Un Sueño after discovered that the eyesight he’d lost in childhood couldn’t be restored. There’s hope against hope in Zenon’s balmy, cautiously sailing phrasing over Perdomo’s bittersweetly regal backdrop and quiet hailstorm of a solo.

The two hit as much of a peak as there is here with their version of singer La Lupe’s famous 1960s hit Que Te Pedí, from Zenon’s bounding solo intro, through a somberly unembellished couple of verses, to a trick ending – no spoilers! They bring the set full circle with a somewhat subdued yet animated version of crooner Cheo Feliciano’s Juguete, Zenon finally cutting loose with a long, flurrying solo, as he’s been threatening to do all along. Two of the most lyrical players in jazz, or any other kind of music, at the top of their game…quietly.

Ferociously Lyrical, Amazingly Psychedelic, Eclectic Sounds From the Free Radicals

Fearlessly political Houston-based collective the Free Radicals have a brilliant, insightful new album, White Power Outage Volume 1 out and streaming at Bandcamp. Over catchy, psychedelically arranged organic grooves that range from hard funk, to roots reggae, to dub and even surf music, a vast cast of over fifty artists speak truth to power with witheringly insightful lyricism. This album is like a great musical podcast about the state of the world right at the first strike of the lockdown: over and over again, this crew breaks down the big picture in ways that make sense, especially considering what’s happened since March 16 here in New York and even earlier in Wuhan.

Not surprisingly, it took more than a year to pull together all 23 tracks here. Hip-hop artist Obidike Kamau kicks it off over with America Is a Lie, over a slinky, live funk groove with wah guitar:

I know how much this hurts your feelings
It’s not because you strive for justice, but I’ve heard this bullshit all my life
The propaganda you spit, the rose-colored myths you declare
…I guess it goes back to your gangster beginnings
Your genocidal belief in unhappy endings
…I know a thief appreciates possession being nine tenths of the law
And you’re a liar
I ain’t in fear, your reign is temporary
I see it leaving here

EQuality delivers another broadside so good all 58 seconds of it are worth reprinting:

If multiple black men are found dead in the apartment of a millionaire tied to the Democratic Party named Ed Buck, and nobody investigates his role in the incident, does it make a sound?
Bartender I’ll take another round
But pouring kool-aid in a wine glass don’t make it merlot
A cat having kittens in the oven don’t make them biscuits
Well I’ll be George Washington Carver selling peanuts to the peanut gallery at the art gallery See what’s on the walls, pictures of poverty and pain
‘Cause that’s what sells n____s to negros
Some inverse tradeoff
Paid off the most popular rapper so the house can run the field n____s
Capitalism and Christ cut a deal in the back of the Vatican
As the Pope pours another round of scotch
Excuse my cynicism
The gospel according to a con

“Maybe we just catch a case and disappear without a trace,” says rapper Nosaprise over the loopy psychedelic backdrop of Cash Out — and he’s not talking about COVID.

“Beware the boogieman, terror threats scaring us out of psychological reason,” D-Ology warns in Look at That, a far-reaching catalog of threats from police brutality to transhumanism.

The Great Australian Heist, featuring hip-hop lyricist Bryte from down under, reminds how the slave trade devastated his country’s indigenous population…and how that resonates today in, as just one example, the way fracking is destroying the country’s already scarce water supply. He doesn’t get into the fascist lockdown situation there, the most repressive clampdown on human rights outside of China and Israel right now.

Swatara Olushola takes over the mic in Racist Car No Driver, revealing a sinister white supremacist motivation behind driverless cars: their “garbage in, garbage out” technology was designed not to recognize the presence of black people in the street. Earlier in the record she contributes another rocksteady-tinged protest song that also pokes savage fun at technosupremacists.

The musicians here turn out to be a phenomenal roots reggae band. The best of many of the reggae tunes here are the intricately arranged Daughter of Diana, with Kam Franklin on vocals, and Student Debt Dub, an Ethiopiques number fueled by bass and brass. Yet the best straight-up instrumental on the album is the sarcastically titled Deepwater Horizon, a slinky, reverbtoned minor-key surf rock instrumental – it’s really cool how the bass gets to carry the melody for a verse.

Later on the band careen into punk klezmer for a bit, then toward the end of the record Matt Kelly contributes Piece of the Rock, a Celtic/punkgrass mashup sung from the point of view of a greedy oligarch. “Come take a hit of my rock,” he snarls.

Highlights among the many other tracks here also include also fiery, politically charged reggaeton from Karina Nistal; Rashard’s More Power, a political update on vintage James Brown spiced with vibraphone and horns; and Genesis Blu & Jasmine Christine’s Chariot Rock, a conscious hip-hop reinvention of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot over dubby, Ethiopian-tinged loops. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page here at the end of the month.