New York Music Daily

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Tag: neosoul

Soul Singer Alice Lee’s Long-Awaited New Album: One of 2017’s Catchiest, Most Lyrically Searing Releases

Back in the mid-zeros, soul singer Alice Lee was one of the most distinctive and individualistic artists in what was a thriving Lower East Side and Brooklyn music scene. She remains one of the most eclectic tunesmiths to emerge from there, blending jazz sophistication, trippy downtempo ambience, and a little slashing punk-funk or downtown guitar skronk into her uneasy, picturesque songs. This blog’s predecessor picked her 2005 release Lovers and Losers as one of the thousand best albums of all time. That one was sort of a mashup of Nina Simone and Fiona Apple.

In the years since then, gentrification continued to blight neighborhoods across the city, and Lee was one of the thousands driven out by the luxury-condo blitzkrieg. These days she’s been dividing her time between here and Guatemala, continuing to play her own music as well as tropicalia and jazz throughout Central America. Now, she finally has a new album, The Wheel – streaming at Bandcamp – and a a show coming on on May 25 at 9 PM Pete’s Candy Store, one of the few remaining venues that she played back in the day that’s still open.

Although there’s great elegance and nuance in her voice on these songs, the overall atmosphere is sobering and defiantly angry. Much of the material is awash in regret; the album’s best songs are searing narratives of 99-percenter struggles. She kicks things off with a swinging, lo-fi guitar-and-vocal jazz miniature, These Foolish Things: it’s over in a heartbeat, just like the affair it commemorates. The wickedly anthemic, trip-hop-tinged Where Are You My Love, a longtime concert favorite, captures Lee in the studio circa 2003 on electric piano, with Yuval Gabay on drums and Lee’s longtime producer, Pere Ubu and No Grave Like the Sea mastermind Tony Maimone on bass.David Johnson’s tersely biting Spanish guitar solo midway through matches the bittersweetness and longing in Lee’s voice as it finally rises at the end.

Most of the rest of the songs here feature Mark Schwartz on bass and Alejandro Vega on drums, with Maimone on the four-string on a handful of tracks. The blockbuster cut is the resolutely insistent Your Blues, an anthem for the era of Ferguson and Eric Garner, Lee doubletracking her blippy, distorted electric piano and judiciously resonant electric guitar:

Bend your life, break your back
For a system that bruises you
Twenty lashes in jail
When it fails you, accuses you
Don’t exist in the eyes of the law
They can do with you as they please
You stand up for yourself
And they bring you to your knees
Can’t look me in the eye
As you take your shot
The blood on your hands
Will come out in the wash
How can you stand by
Watch your brother fall and suffer
At the hands of another
How far are we from done
From disconnect and thinking we’re the only ones

Another electric piano groove, Letter to No One revisits the surreal, restless nocturnal vibe of much of Lovers & Losers:

My heart is overwhelmed
By a tide that won’t turn
I stumble forward, wondering how long
Before I wake
The key to happiness,
A secret no one else can crack
Always looking forward and
Never looking back

The album’s loopy, tricky, syncopated title track looks at the desperation of love in a time of wage slavery:

These days were meant for the dogs
You hit the blocks hard but you don’t get the job
Or you get the job but you’re full up in debt
That you spend the rest of your life trying to get ahead
…You don’t get a choice in the matter
Until you get caught

Lee revisits the theme in the briskly swinging, catchy, cynical Too Little Too Late, another big audience hit:

We go forward, two steps back
Hit play, repeat, don’t skip the track…
Watch the broken glass across the gap
Step on the line don’t let me pass the same way twice

Descent, set to an ironic downward chord progression, is Lee at her most harrowing and intense, with a creepy, tremolo-picked dreampop guitar solo:

Repetition is a curse
Save the chorus
Erase the verse
Where were you
When I was down
For the count, but not quite out
Passing ghost with no regrets
Learning to live and forget

The funky First and Sixth, another brooding nocturne, will resonate with anybody who has bittersweetly hazy memories of wee-hours hookups in what was then a (semi) affordable East Village on nights when the trains were all messed up: “Waiting on the L just out of luck, now I’m stuck at 14th St., waiting on my whiskey sour…it’s almost time for breakfast again…make no difference, hand to mouth…I don’t care if I’m the only one to get out of here alive.” This wasn’t such a long time ago, either.

Love Is a Thief, an elegant jazz waltz of sorts, dates from the early zeros and has the feel of early 60s Nina Simone blended with Velvets folk-rock: Lee plays it solo on acoustic guitar and piano. She works a psychedelically sparkling upward trajectory on the kiss-off anthem Left of Mine, brooding guitar jangle set to a funky shuffle beat. The album also includes a couple of remixes, including legendary Greenpoint producer Scotty Hard’s version of First and Sixth. It’s only May, but we may have the best album of 2017 here.

Lakecia Benjamin Invents a Brand New Soul Sound

Ever see some generic corporate band or singer on tv and wonder to yourself if the backing musicians are content to play cliches all the time…or if they have secret lives where they pull off their masks and play real music? Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin is one of those players. She’s toured with the kind of acts you hear in the laundromat – and also with Stevie Wonder. Last month, Motema released Retox, Benjamin’s debut album as a leader with her band Soul Squad, and it’s eclectic to the extreme, something you would expect from a musician who’s played as many styles as she has. Though drawing deeply on the classic sounds of James Brown, Maceo Parker, Sly and the Family Stone and the Meters, the album also includes several tracks that mix in a more current-day vibe. It won’t alienate those who’re satisfied with John Legend or Erykah Badu, but it’ll satisfy diehard fans of real oldschool artists from Sharon Jones to George Clinton.

It’s a blend of vocal and instrumental joints. Along with the blissfully peaceful, atmospheric Dreams, there are some serious party jams: the band’s signature, P-Funk flavored opening track, SoulSquad, which evolved out of a jam at a concert soundcheck; Maceo, a tribute to funky sax legend Maceo Parker that blends vintage JB’s with 70s P-Funk; and the horn-driven groove Get Down, a rousingly successful attempt to mix a 60s go-go feel with James Brown, right down to the fat but simple bass groove and tight, punchy horn riffs.

The rest of the tracks cover a lot of ground as well. Keep Talkin’, a casually seductive duet between Amp Fiddler and Tracey Nicole, mashes up a sweet mid 60s-style soul melody with more ambitious 70s stylings. Share My Life reaches for more of an early 90s soul/hip-hop feel, featuring airy, carefree vocals from Jacoria Marzett and a cameo from rapper Whosane over swirling, summery ambience. My Love features a nuanced, Sarah Vaughan-esque vocal by Krystle Warren, while Mavis Swan Poole sings Human Being, a hypnotically echoey jazz/funk fusion that brings to mind Digable Planets.

With its wickedly catchy hook, Jump and Shout holds nothing back, a driving but sultry kiss-off anthem: Benjamin had been looking for a singer to channel her lyrics’ righteous rage and when she heard Chinah Blac singing at a house party, she realized she’d found a match. The easygoing, satisfied, boudoir-pop song Smile bounces along with lead vocals by Maya Azucena and one of Benjamin’s signature lush, balmy horn charts – and an exquisitely warm, direct alto sax solo. And Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing pays homage to Benjamin’s longtime pal Stevie Wonder: Benjamin speeds it up, reinventing it for the dancefloor with latin sabor and a tight clave beat.

The closing track, Slow Juice originated as a studio mistake: when Benjamin heard an earlier composition being played back at halfspeed, she realized that she’d stumbled upon a tremendous slow groove. So she took out the horns and vocals and turned the new track into a sly, sultry downtempo/trip-hop anthem, a platform for Benjamin to subtly flex the jazz chops she’d originally honed as a teenager playing with Rashied Ali and the Clark Terry Big Band. Benjamin’s next NYC gig with this band is 8/20 at the Red Rooster, 310 Lenox Ave. (125/126), time/$TBA; she’s at the big room at the Rockwood the following day, 8/21 at 8:30 PM for $10.

Imani Uzuri’s Unique Sound Travels Everywhere

There’s a point on Imani Uzuri’s new album where the cello is playing a gypsy horn line over a tango beat as a sitar rings and pings in the background and an otherworldly choir of Balkan gospel voices go up, and up, and up in a swirling, fiery crescendo. That track is called Meet Me at the Station – it starts as a pensive country blues song and expands from there. It’s one of many high points on the aptly titled Gypsy Diaries, due out June 5; Uzuri plays the album release show at 7 on June 1 at Joe’s Pub. As of today, $15 advance tickets are still available but probably going fast.

You could file what Uzuri does under soul music, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A world traveler and musical omnivore, she blends global styles seamlessly but impactfully. Given the instrumentation on the album – Christian Ver Halen’s acoustic guitar and bass, Todd Isler’s versatile percussion, Neel Murgai’s sitar (!), Kaoru Watanabe’s flute, Tarrah Reynolds’ violin and Marika Hughes’ cello – the songs often build to an unexpected, epic grandeur. Uzuri has a powerful yet nuanced contralto voice that occasionally will reach stratospheric heights, with an ecstatic, gospel-fueled intensity. As dark as the music can be here, her message is one of liberation and self-empowerment. And it’s not prosaic and obtuse like Ani DiFranco, or empty and cliched like Erykah Badu: what Uzuri is after is transcendence. The album begins with a tone poem of sorts that fuses vintage soul with qawwali and ends with a rustic, 19th century style a-cappella field holler. In between there’s acoustic rock, Brazilian, Mediterranean, funk and a lot of blues and soul styles. Several of the songs, particularly the casually funky acoustic flute tune I Sing the Blues work a vamp up to a hypnotic, insistent mantra that Uzuri hammers home, again and again.

The third track, Winter Song grows from a Greek string riff to pensive fingerpicked guitar blues, a lush anthemic chorus lit up by the sitar and finally a sweeping, apprehensive yet ultimately triumphant coda. Likewise, the most rock-oriented track here, Whisperings (We Are One) hits a soaring crescendo with Uzuri’s voice going full force against a south Indian-tinged melody. And the ba-BUMP beat of Gathering, a modern update on a field holler, eventually builds to a mighty wallop as the strings rise with it. There’s also the funky, bossa-inflected flute tune You Know You Love Me, the gorgeously brooding, epic Soul Still Sings, a couple of songs that start sparsely and build to more of Uzuri’s signature mantra vocal riffs, and the dreamy Indian-flavored lullaby I’m Ready. Eclectic enough for you?

Little Genius on the Loose at the Rockwood

At her Soundcloud site, Marilyn Carino calls her new Little Genius album “electronic soul,” but it’s a lot more soul than electronic. Her show Tuesday night at the Rockwood took awhile to set up: with her two keyboards, and her big Gibson hollowbody guitar, and a live rhythm section, it was obvious that this was going to be a real concert, not karaoke. You could compare the former frontwoman of Brooklyn downtempo/chillout group Mudville to Amy Winehouse or to Bjork, but Carino’s a thousand times more diverse than the first one and a lot more focused than the other. Alison Goldfrapp is another singer who comes to mind, but she can’t match Carino for unadulterated, lurid sultriness. And for all the raw sensuality in her delivery, Carino can also be incredibly subtle.

This was a trippy show. The tight, purist rhythm section of jazz bassist Ben Rubin (of Dred Scott’s group) on upright bass and Shawn Pelton (of cinematic noir soundscapers Mojo Mancini) on drums launched into a hypnotic backbeat as Carino spun webs of coldly moody, processed keys that contrasted with the slyly beckoning feel of her vocals. The catchy second song of the night set Carino’s voice against eerie roto organ moving in and out of the mix and a couple of trumpet solos that took it out triumphant and satisfied. Another had Carino building a lazy indie tune out of a single brooding, acidic guitar chord; later, she delivered hushed, suspenseful yet raw gospel-tinged soul over thoughtfully minimalist, echoey Rhodes electric piano.

A couple of the trip-hop numbers, including one that opened with a cascade of rainstorm piano before the textures got all woozy, had a darkly mesmerizing intensity: they wouldn’t have been out of place on the live Portishead album. They hit a cool Jazzmatazz vibe toward the end of the set, a hip-hop artist joining them to elevate the laid-back atmosphere as the trumpet soared. They closed with a deliciously noir, jazzy tune and then an old Mudville song, just bass, drums, trumpet and Carino’s bracing come-hither allure.

As entertaining as this show was, there were unwanted distractions. A pair of drunken Eurotrash couples – a girl at the bar chatting up a much older guy, and a coked-up greybeard by the window with his rent-a-date, talked loudly, nonstop, throughout the concert. Which was too bad – the Rockwood doesn’t usually draw that kind of crowd, especially when there’s a good band onstage.