This week sees news releases from Damon Albarn/Tony Allen/ Flea et al (with Rocket Juice & The Moon), Cowboy Junkies, DuoTone, Sean Taylor, plus an archive release of Benin legends Le Super Borgou de Parakou and a Willie Dixon box set.
Damon Albarn/Tony Allen/ Flea & others – Rocket Juice & The Moon (Honest Jon’s)
Cosmic funk anyone? Blur frontman Damon Albarn, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen first hatched the idea for this project when they met on a flight to Lagos to perform as part of the Africa Express collective. Inviting some top guest musicians from around the globe to join them, they’ve already touched down for a series of live gigs in Europe as part of Honest Jon’s Chop Up and this week sees the release of their intergalactic journey into psychedelic funk.
Albarn’s at the helm bleeping away on analogue synthesizers while percussion master Tony Allen and bassist Flea get the vibe going. Hey, Shooter features the kooky vocals of Erykah Badu coupled with Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble while Albarn’s synth weaves a path through the skiddy beats and funk guitar. The punchy brass returns for Malian singer and rising world music star Fatoumata Diawara; her vocals are paired with the skilful rhymes of Ghanaian hip-hop artist M.anifest on album highlight Lolo. Elsewhere, Malian musician Cheick Tidiane Seck contributes vocals and keyboards to Extinguished and There, M3nsa injects some Ghanaian hip-life into Chop Up and Albarn surprises with an engaging vocal performance on the Bowie-esque Poison – another highlight. From the spooky psychedelia of Worries to the buzzy brass funk of Leave-taking, you feel yourself carried along on a multi-textured odyssey heading somewhere into deep space. Bring on the rocket juice. [Reviewed by Sofi]
Cowboy Junkies – Wilderness (Proper Records)
The Nomad Series has seen Cowboy Junkies release an ambitious set of four albums over roughly 18 months and they aren’t quite done yet, as a book of artwork and lyrics, with a fifth CD is still over the horizon. But with Wilderness the fourth CD, Michael Timmins has returned to the start of the project and songs that he actually began writing in 2008. It was a highly productive period, taking advantage of a rural retreat offered by a friend, but by his own admission his writing lacked a focus. A further burst of creativity on a subsequent family trip to China, however, suggested a structure and the Nomad concept was born.
The songs that make up Wilderness were literally set aside while Renmin Park (the China trip), Demons (the songs of CJ’s friend and collaborator, the late Vic Chesnutt) and Sing In My Meadow (the band’s noisier more rockin’ side) became the first three instalments. With the benefit of this time for reflection, the songs of Wilderness started to take on the sense of the album’s title and an undercurrent of people, thoughts and emotions cast adrift and with that questioning and seeking connection. Michael even admits to revisiting the people who he has written about over the years and recasting their hopes, fears, desires, concerns, triumphs and failings into the present.
Each Nomad release has its own character and this perhaps represents the CJs’ sound most typically. The core quartet is still fully functioning almost 25 years after The Trinity Sessions became their break-out, signature, sonic statement. Long-term collaborator Jeff Bird adds mandolin, with one or two other guest contributions. But most of the focus is on Margo Timmins’ gorgeous, smoky voice as it wraps itself around Michael’s melodies, bringing lines like “There’s a rock in a field and a collapsing sky, I’m as precious as a snowman, fragile as a lie…” to life. It’s beautiful stuff.
If you’re a long-term fan, you won’t need telling. If you’re a newcomer or lapsed admirer, start here and work your way through the set. Each volume is unique, together they create a complex whole and the book sounds a highly desirable final piece. [Reviewed by Simon]
Le Super Borgou de Parakou – The Bariba Sound (Analog Africa)
Every time Samy Ben Redjeb delves into his vast collection of rare African vinyl, you know he’s going to emerge with a treat. Once again it’s West Africa’s Islamic funk belt that offers up some gems but this time it’s a whole disc’s worth of Le Super Borgou de Parakou (first featured on the African Scream compilation) from the north-east of Benin. Founded by Moussa Mama as a covers band playing Congolese Rumba in the 1960s, they went on to experiment with the traditional songs and rhythms of their own people, singing in the local languages of the Bariba (“descendants of Wasangarani warriors of present-day Nigeria”) and the Dendi (“an Islamic people of Songhai ancestry”) and fusing their Islamic culture with the popular sounds of Afrobeat and highlife. Thanks to the pioneering spirit of Moussa’s father who brought back records from Ghana on his trips to find work in Accra, these new sounds reached the city of Parakou and inspired a new generation of musicians to experiment – the result is captured here by Benin’s most popular band of the time.
Striking songs of “love, life, death and social issues” are fuelled by repetitive rhythms, melodic shape-shifting, funky guitar hooks and psychedelic organ solos. The hypnotic rhythms that underpin Wegne’Nda M’Banda lull you into a trance-like state but not for long, first the lyrical guitar lines kick in, then the organ knocks you sideway with its piercing sound. Abakpe fizzes with raw energy and raucous guitar playing while the wiggy organ break on Guessi-Guere-Guessi epitomises the band’s capacity to surprise at every turn. The catchy song Sembe Sembe Boudou will get you singing along in no time while Ko Guere’s melodic soundclash will have your ears on a double take. Glorious stuff. [Reviewed by Sofi]
Orchestre Super Borgou de Parakou “Wedne Nda M’Banda”
Duotone – Ropes (ECC Records)
This is one of those lovely records possessed of a certain thru’penny-bit-Englishness, which casts a whimsical glance over its shoulder at a lineage back through The Unthanks, XTC, Stackridge and beyond to an imagined folk-tinged branch of the Canterbury scene. The irony is that it locates Barney Morse-Brown and James Garrett full-square into the now of things. Just add occasional flurries of skittering percussion and washes of electronics to the chamber string ensemble, guitars, layered voices and vignettes of songs and it buffs up like a shiny, newly minted coin rather than an artefact of yore.
Beautifully recorded by Rob Harbron and mixed by Afro Celts’ Mass, these mostly gentle, pastoral songs offer suggestions and moods rather than stories, although it’s tempting to think that you are finding narrative threads as you listen on. Perhaps you are simply creating your own, lulled into reverie by the gentle ebb of the music. Barney Morse-Brown, noted for cello accompaniment to Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood and as part of The Imagined Village, is the principal writer and his musical foil James Garrett’s subtle cajon, percussion and harmony help to create their unique, dynamic sound.
The layering of instruments hints at Duotone’s live set, where live, recorded loops are used, allowing multiple cello and guitar lines to be dropped in and out. Further embellishment comes from a guest string quartet, a double bassist and the Duotone Choir. The combination brings high drama to the likes of Night Walk and Broken Earth, while one of the choir, Raevennan Husbandes, adds a gorgeous wordless voice to Powder House and harmony to Turning Pages Over. It’s sumptuous if slightly sombre stuff with Barney’s voice and signature cello sweetly wistful.
Had Brian Eno partnered with Nick Drake rather than Robert Fripp, this might have been the result. A strange thought but for those of a certain sensibility, prepared for a proper sit-down-listen, it amounts to a small slice of heaven in the here and now. [Reviewed by Simon]
Sean Taylor – Love Against Death (SGO Records)
Here’s a young man attracting praise and meaningful comparisons to some talented forebears, the sort of notices in fact to make you sit up and pay attention. Unfortunately I wasn’t and the result is that I’m only just acquiring a working knowledge and taste for the predecessor to this CD, the excellent Walk With Me. It’s no problem per se, but I’m suddenly cramming Sean Taylor and I’m fairly certain that’s not what he had in mind, as this is brimful of big, highly literate songs: wordy, worldly and wonderful.
Sean himself describes the album as being bought up in Kilburn, where he resides, but it comes to us via Texas where he has teamed up with Mark Hallam, who recorded, mixed and mastered the CD as well as playing bass, drums, backing vocals and even occasional accordion. Sean’s guitar technique rightly deserves praise and he plays keyboards and harmonica and despite his almost JJ Cale-ish raspy drawl, several of the songs are very Anglo-centric. Kilburn is an obvious homage to his current multicultural home, Coal Not Dole is a surprising throwback that simply asks “Which Side Were You On?”, Stand Up echoes the recent protests and marches relating to current government policy, but also perhaps has a more global standpoint, as does Western Intervention.
It’s not all posturing politics, however, Ballad Of A Happy Man is anything but, although it stands defiant with its Cajun inflected “Laissez les bons temps rouler” refrain. Cassady and Les Fleur Du Mal call up the ghosts of American icons. Absinthe Moon and Heaven with its opiate cocoon possibly speak of more personal demons. Hymn, the closing duet with Eliza Gilkyson is a poignant closer.
Two well chosen and arranged covers – 16 Tons and Raglan Road – fit well with Sean’s originals, but it’s the strength of the latter that’s the real story here. He’s quite a discovery with a brace of excellent albums awaiting your attention, don’t make the mistake I did and dilly-dally. [Reviewed by Simon]
Various – The Willie Dixon Story (Properbox)
Despite racial segregation, Black America’s blues had been recorded extensively in studios and ’in the field’ since the off but it wasn’t until after World War II that the Blues/R&B emerged as a significant slice of the US music biz cake: principally because of the migration of rural southern blacks to seek opportunities in America’s major cities, and canny indie operators within those cities realising the commercial potential. Chicago could hold claim to be the blues break-out capital. William James “Willie” Dixon (1915-1992) was an imposing figure of influence and creativity within Chicago’s burgeoning blues scene, initially as a performer, far more importantly as a studio mentor, musical accompanist, writer, arranger, talent scout and producer. All aspects of his talents (except his early career as a boxer!) are celebrated in this 100-track, 4-CD box set.
If you call yourself a blues fan you must surely already have the most famous of these recordings in your collection. No excuse not to revisit them from an entirely different perspective and find many others you may not know
After moving up from Mississippi to Chicago in the mid 30s and punching his weight as a boxer for awhile, Dixon first entered the studio in 1940 as the singing, slap-bass playing big man with buddies calling themselves The Five Breezes. Later in the 40s he recorded with The Four Jumps Of Jive before leading the successful Big Three Trio, by which time he was hanging out with the cats at Aristocrat (soon to become Chess) Records.
During the 40s he had accompanied artists such as Rosetta Howard, Washboard Sam, Robert Nighthawk and the original Sonny Boy Williamson. With Chess he hit the jackpot, writing a succession of hits for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and other signature recordings for Elmore James, Willie Mabon, Eddie Boyd, Lowell Fulson, Junior Wells and Bo Diddley, as well as playing a hefty part on key recordings by the second Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, The Moonglows and many more.
After a fall-out with Chess over payback he became the mover ’n’ shaker at Cobra Records, with whom he cut some great sides with Otis Rush and Magic Sam and also ’discovered’ a young Betty Everett, who would go on to 60s soul success. He then returned to Chess to pick up the pieces with Howlin’ Wolf and company.
All the vital recordings are here. The only possible criticism (I can usually find something to carp about) is that the four discs are presented thematically – The Performer, The Session Man, The Songwriter, The Record Company Man – with a confusing mix of chronology on each disc. However, there is a 24-page booklet including discographical details and an erudite essay by Russell Beecher. So if you’ve a tidy mind you can work it out for yourself while enjoying a powerhouse of blues and rhythm ’n’ blues with a little bit of rock ’n’ roll on the side, just for good measure. [Reviewed by Cliff White]
Sit And Cry The Blues – Willie Dixon (bass & vocals), Memphis Slim (piano), Matt Murphy (guitar) and Billy Stepney (drums) – American Folk Blues Festival 1963