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ItsYaBoiH2, Pair-a-Lesions

21 Apr, 2016 Alex Henderson

itsyaboih2

Hip-hop started in New York City (specifically, Harlem and the South Bronx) in the late 1970s, but in recent years, the South’s contributions to hip-hop have been enormous.  From Master Limit’s No Limit crew in New Orleans to Ludacris and all the Atlanta rappers to Pitbull in Miami, southern rappers have sold numerous albums and singles.  Rappers from the Dirty South often project a strong regional identity: listeners who are heavily into hip-hop can easily tell the stylistic differences between southern rappers and rappers from other parts of the United States.  But occasionally, one comes across a southern rapper with a musical identity that isn’t especially southern-sounding.  And ItsYaBoiH2 is such a rapper.

ItsYaBoiH2 is from Milan, Tennessee (as opposed to Milan, Italy), but listening to his 2013 release, Bigger Fish, it was evident that his most prominent influences were not southern rappers.  And the influences that served him well three years ago continue to serve him well on 2016’s Pair-a-Lesions, including Eminem, Jay-Z, Bone Thugs N Harmony and House of Pain.

One hears a lot of Eminem when ItsYaBoiH2 is flowing on “New in Town,” “Preachin’,” “My Basement” or “Fall at Your Feet.”  Yet the introspection on “Lay It on the Line” and the title track brings to mind Jay-Z, and while ItsYaBoiH2’s lyrics are edgy, he never becomes as twisted or dark as Eminem can be.  Of course, neither Eminem nor Jay-Z are from the Dirty South.  Jay-Z is from Brooklyn, and Eminem is a Michigan native with a West Coast connection (namely producer/rapper Dr. Dre, the former N.W.A member who played a crucial role in Eminem’s rise to fame in the late 1990s).

Bone Thugs N Harmony are from Ohio, and House of Pain was a West Coast group with an East Coast connection: Everlast was born in New York State.  So when one factors in all of ItsYaBoiH2’s direct or indirect influences (from Eminem to Jay-Z to Bone Thug N Harmony to House of Pain), it is clear that despite his southern background, he gets the vast majority of his creative inspiration from outside of the Dirty South.

Many of the beats on Pair-a-Lesions are funk and urban beats.  But there is also a fair amount of rock influence on this album, from “Fall at Your Feet” to “New in Town” (which opens with a sample of Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam).  And ItsYaBoiH2 acknowledges Led Zeppelin on two selections: “Easy” and “Mince Meat.”  While “Easy” contains an old BBC sample from early in Led Zeppelin’s career, “Mince Meat” samples the Middle Eastern-influenced “Kashmir” (one of the most famous songs on the band’s 1975 album Physical Graffiti).

The merger of hip-hop and rock goes back to the 1980s with Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys.  They were the first MCs to incorporate rock in a major way (Run-D.M.C. with “Rock Box” in 1984, the Beastie Boys with “Rock Hard”).  In fact, the Beasties started out as a punk band in New York City before shifting their focus to hip-hop.  And in the 1990s, hip-hop’s influence on rock was so strong that it was impossible to spend an hour listening to a Generation X-oriented “active rock” or alternative rock station without hearing some type of hip-hop influence.  So combining rock and hip-hop is a long, proud tradition that has been going strong for more than 30 years, and it is good to see ItsYaBoiH2 contributing to that tradition on “Easy,” “Mince Meat,” “Fall at Your Feet” and “New in Town.”  But while artists like Faith No More, Rage Against the Machine and the Red Hot Chili Peppers brought hip-hop into rock, ItsYaBoiH2 is bringing rock into hip-hop (which is more in line with how Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Ice-T, Tone-Loc and others approached it back in the day).

Pair-a-Lesions isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s a solid example of a southern rapper getting most of his creative inspiration from outside of the Deep South.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5

Céran, The Ultimate: The Essential Anthology of Céran

15 Apr, 2016 Alex Henderson

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Kansas City, Missouri resident Carlton Dubois McClain, a.k.a. Céran, is not an easy artist to pigeonhole.  His 2014 release Live, and Let Love was relevant to neo-soul, blending elements of 1970s soul with urban contemporary R&B of the 1990s and beyond.  Live, and Let Love, however, was not the work of an R&B purist, and Céran also brought pop-rock and adult alternative influence to the table.  Céran, who was 22 at the time and will turn 24 on April 28, 2016, drew on a wide variety of influences that ranged from D’Angelo, Seal and John Legend to Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.  And he also reminds listeners of his diversity on 2016’s The Ultimate: The Essential Anthology of Céran, a compilation containing previously released material from Live, and Let Love as well as his albums The Art of Céran from 2012 and Verity from 2014.

If R&B is the main ingredient on this best-of CD, it is by no means the only ingredient. Céran is quite unpredictable, drawing on everything from reggae on “The Wrong of Right” to pop-rock and adult alternative on “Break Free,” “Feelin’ Lucky,” “Change for Me” and the ballad “State of Grace” (which sounds a bit like Purple Rain-era Prince).  Céran usually sings in English, but he surprises us by performing in French on “Encore une Fois” and in Spanish on the Afro-Caribbean-flavored “Amaré Otra Vez” (which means “I Will Love Again”).

Neo-soul ballads are plentiful on The Ultimate, and they include “Noble Fool” (a vocal duet with female singer Samara), “Open Road” and “All That You Want Me to Be” as well as the CD’s title track.  Yet Céran sounds equally comfortable with a fast dance beat, which is exactly what he provides on “Love Is Found” (another male/female vocal duet with Samara) and the opener “The Occident.”  Both “Love Is Found” and “The Occident” favor the more soul-minded side of dance music and have a strong deep house feel.  In terms of production, “The Occident” has a definite late 1980s influence and sounds like it could have been recorded around 1987 or 1988.

House music comes in many different flavors.  Some acid house can be dissonant, abrasive and noisy, not unlike techno. In many cases, it does not have a traditional verse/chorus/verse/chorus song structure.  But deep house, on the other hand, is known for its emphasis on melody, harmony and song structure.  Deep house, when it got started in the 1980s, was very much a continuation of the late 1970s disco-soul of artists like Moment of Truth, Double Exposure, Loleatta Holloway, the Trammps, Linda Clifford and Gloria Gaynor.  Those artists weren’t just about the beat: they had songs, and deep house has been a high-tech approach to that tradition.  Céran, on “Love Is Found” and “The Occident,” approaches dance music with that type of soul-minded mentality.  Those selections are not just about having a beat for the sake of having a beat; vocal personality is an essential part of the equation.  “Love Is Found” and “The Occident” are club-friendly, but they also work well for just plain listening.

While parts of this collection underscore Céran’s fondness for the music of the 1970s and 1980s, the Midwesterner looks to an even earlier era of music with “Troubled Heart.”  That selection is heavily influenced by doo wop, sounding like it could have written in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Of course, Céran had yet to be born in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or even the 1980s.  He was born on April 28, 1992. And the fact that someone who is still in the first half of his twenties can get inspiration from classic doo wop, classic soul and classic dance music is impressive.  Céran clearly is not afraid to do his homework when it comes to checking out the music of previous generations.

Céran’s broad-minded outlook is evident on this CD.  Céran is taking his share of risks, and his desire to look to both the past and the present for creative inspiration is clearly an advantage on The Ultimate: The Essential Anthology of Céran.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 out of 5 stars

Adam Naylor, Lost in a Rhythm

05 Feb, 2016 Alex Henderson

Album coverAdam Naylor is not a newcomer to recording.  The Scottish singer/songwriter, who was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1990 but now lives in Edinburgh, recorded his first album, Time Will Tell, in 2007.  That release was followed by Naylor’s second album, Going Places (2009), The Strike of a Chord, in 2011, and Lost in a Rhythm (his fourth album) is an early 2016 release.

In Scotland and Ireland, it is not hard to find singer/songwriters who combine pop-rock or folk-rock with a strong Celtic influence.  In those countries, it is not uncommon for musicians to be as influenced by traditional Celtic music (be it the Irish variety or the Scottish variety, or a combination of the two) as they are by Bob Dylan and Neil Young.  But Lost in a Rhythm is not especially Celtic-sounding.  One hears traces of a Scottish accent in Naylor’s vocals on introspective adult alternative/folk-rock offerings such as “Never Enough,” “Over the Horizon,” “Morning Light” and “The Final Step,” yet in terms of the songwriting, much of Naylor’s influence comes from North America.

Listening to “Directions,” “We’re on Our Way” or “It Makes Your Eyes Light Up,” one hears the direct or indirect influence of North American singer/songwriters such as James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Chapin and Jesse Winchester.  Naylor is only 25, but the fact that he didn’t come into the world until the early 1990s does not prevent him from having a strong appreciation of the singer/songwriters of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  From “Losing My Desire” to “Have a Go” to “The Answer,” Naylor obviously enjoys a lot of singer/songwriters who were popular before he was even born.  And that is a good thing.  There is no reason why Naylor should not be influenced by singer/songwriters of the past even though he is performing and recording in 2016.

It is quite possible for a musician to use electronic programming to achieve an adult alternative or folk-rock sound.  It is certainly possible for musicians to use synthesizers and programming even though in terms of melodies and songwriting, they are influenced by artists who operate largely or entirely in the acoustic realm.  But Naylor does not favor a high-tech production style on Lost in a Rhythm.  In fact, his acoustic guitar does a great deal to shape the sound of this album.

Naylor’s acoustic guitar is right up front on “A Controlled Illusion,” “Before I Knew,” “Never Enough” and other songs on this album.  And he plays it in a jangly fashion, which is appropriate for someone who draws direct or indirect inspiration from old-school singer/songwriters like Taylor and Winchester.  Naylor’s songwriting style and his jangly acoustic guitar sound natural together.

Lost in a Rhythm is by no means an album of escapist party music.  The album has a consistently serious and introspective tone, and at times, Naylor’s lyrics can be on the melancholy side.  Certainly, the word “melancholy” comes to mind when Naylor is performing “Losing My Desire,” “The Answer” or “Before I Knew.”

But then, there is no law stating that music is obligated to push the smile button 100% of the time.  Darker emotions and feelings of melancholy are certainly valid for artistic expression, and Naylor’s willingness to let his more melancholy thoughts come through in his lyrics is not a bad thing.

One should never underestimate the impact that language has on music.  People in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales speak the same language as people in the United States and most of Canada.  So English-speaking singer/songwriters in the British Isles often listen to English-speaking singer/songwriters from North America, and vice versa.  One could say that North America and the British Isles have had a mutually beneficial relationship when it comes to singer/songwriters, and for Naylor, the influence of classic North American folk-rock yields generally decent results on Lost in a Rhythm.

Review by Alex Henderson
3 stars out of 5

Steve Lieberman, the Gangsta Rabbi/Blast-O-Rama

21 Dec, 2015 Alex Henderson

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To really understand what makes veteran singer Steve Lieberman, the Gangsta Rabbi tick musically, one needs to take a close look at the early years of punk rock.  A slick, commercialized, stylized version of pop-punk enjoyed great commercial success in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to the emo trend, but early punk as envisioned by the Sex Pistols in the United Kingdom or Black Flag, Fear, the Dead Boys and the Germs in the United States was anything but slick.  It was raw, crude, primal and totally in-your-face.  And that type of mindset is very much at work on Blast-O-Rama, which Lieberman recorded in 2015.  Listening to the noisy sensory assault of “The Double Clutch,” “Astroland 415” or “Bassett Hound Pull-Toy,” it is evident that Lieberman (who turned 57 on June 21, 2015) could care less about mainstream success and still identifies with the raw, defiant spirit of late 1970s and early 1980s punk.

When those who are unfamiliar with Lieberman’s background hear him call himself the Gangsta Rabbi, they might assume that Blast-O-Rama offers some type of fusion of hip-hop and Jewish music (perhaps klezmer).  And there have, in fact, been experimental Jewish artists who brought together hip-hop and klezmer elements (David Krakauer, for example).  But that isn’t the type of thing that Lieberman is going for on “Transfusion Pole,” “Militia Man,” “Suki Sukanya” or the title track.  And even though he identifies strongly with the spirit of early punk, it would be inaccurate to describe Blast-O-Rama as the work of a punk purist or someone who is trying to sound exactly like the Sex Pistols in 1977 or Black Flag in 1980.  Rather, these jagged, distorted performances are best described as a mixture of punk, metal and industrial rock.  And Lieberman incorporates elements of marching band music and ska as well.

Quite a few industrial artists have used technology not to smooth out their rough edges, but to clobber the listener.  And Lieberman the Gangsta Rabbi, taking a cue from those industrial agitators, is not shy about clobbering the listener.

According to his publicity bio, Lieberman has been battling cancer since September 2011.  A wide variety of  musicians, over the years, have used music to cope with life-threatening illnesses, and the results were often contemplative, introspective and wistful.  But Lieberman, on the other hand, keeps things harsh and abrasive on “The Popsicle Song,” “The Whole of the Moon” and other tracks.  Having a major illness has not caused Lieberman to mellow musically: listening to “Transfusion Pole” or “Big Bad Carburetor 429,” it is evident that Lieberman is determined to rock as loudly and aggressively as ever.

Lieberman functions as a one-man band on Blast-O-Rama, which he produced himself.  Traditionally, punk and metal have consisted of vocals, guitar, bass and drums.  But on Blast-O-Rama, Lieberman plays not only standard punk and metal instruments, but also, wind instruments that include trombone, trumpet and flute.  One might think of the trombone or the trumpet as instruments that are more appropriate for Tommy Dorsey tributes than for metal, punk or hardcore, but Blast-O-Rama demonstrates that they can work perfectly well in a loud, angry, guitar-heavy rock setting.  Lieberman does not use wind instruments to make himself sound more polished; he uses them to add to the sensory assault.  And in fact, polish is the last thing that he is going for on “The Popsicle Song,” “CC Sabathia” or “Driving a Stick Shift with a Hernia.”  There are no signs of Lieberman softening his rough edges, which is a big part of this album’s brutal, uncompromising charm.  Lieberman does not reach out to the mainstream on Blast-O-Rama; he proudly and defiantly rejects it.

Musicians as extreme as Lieberman are an acquired taste, to be sure.  Anyone who complains about how noisy or abrasive these performances are totally misses the point: Lieberman thrives on primal energy, not polish.  And those who have a taste for the extreme will find that his primal energy continues to serve him well on Blast-O-Rama.

Review by Alex Henderson
3.5 stars out of 5

Stephen Cogswell, Floating

12 Nov, 2015 Alex Henderson

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The San Francisco Bay Area has given the world a long list of famous musicians over the years, from Santana to Sly & the Family Stone and Tower of Power to Jefferson Airplane (later Jefferson Starship) to Pete & Sheila Escovedo.  And of course, the Bay Area gave us the Grateful Dead, whose recordings continue to influence the jam band scene long after the death of Jerry Garcia (who died of a heart attack in August 1995).  One Bay Area-based musician who, in 2015, is showing a strong Grateful Dead influence is singer/songwriter Stephen Cogswell (stephencogswell.com).  The Grateful Dead aren’t the only influence one hears on Cogswell’s likable debut album, Floating: other direct or indirect influences on this release range from the Eagles to John Mayer to James Taylor to Fleetwood Mac.  But Cogswell obviously has a strong appreciation of the folksy, good-natured style that the Grateful Dead were known for, and that is evident on earthy offerings such as “Borrowed,” “Waiting in Divine,” “How Beautiful” and “Teeter.”  Saying that Cogswell has a heavy jam band influence is not to say that he does a lot of jamming and improvising on this album, but melodically, there is no overlooking the Jerry Garcia/Bob Weir elements one encounters on “Rest in Your Fields,” “Moonlight and Candle” or “Thoughts Unsaid.”

Floating is an appropriate title for this album because Cogswell’s songs do, in fact, tend to have a floating type of sound. Cogswell is the type of artist who would rather float than rock out, and his material tends to be on the laid-back side.  Even when he increases the tempo, Cogswell’s work comes across as good-natured and easygoing (which, of course, was also true of the Grateful Dead and Kingfish, a jam band that the Dead’s Bob Weir was a part of in the 1970s).

Although Floating is relevant to the jam band, singer/songwriter and adult alternative scenes, Cogswell obviously has influences outside of rock.  “Whale Song” has a definite country influence, which is not surprising in light of how much country influenced the Grateful Dead (who were quite happy to include Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” in their repertoire).  “Sweet and Wonderful” incorporates elements of soul and reggae, while “The One” has a strong hip-hop influence and even includes some rapping.  For those who closely follow the modern, post-Grateful Dead jam band scene, it should not come as a big surprise that Cogswell flirts with hip-hop on “The One.”  Many young jam bands of the 2000s and 2010s have incorporated hip-hop, which in some cases, has been around longer than their members have been alive (the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rapping,” two of the early hip-hop singles, both came out 36 years ago in 1979).  And when one considers how long people in the jam band scene have been listening to hip-hop, it makes perfect sense for Cogswell to take the “Grateful Dead meet hip-hop” approach that he favors on “The One.”  Cogswell makes hip-hop and the influence of the Grateful Dead sound like a perfectly natural and logical combination.

Another non-rock influence on Floating is African music.  Cogswell employs Karamo Cissokho, a kora player from Senegal, on “Distance.”  The kora, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is a traditional string instrument that is used in West Africa (not only in Senegal, but also, in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau).  On “Distance,” Cogswell demonstrates that there is no reason why the kora cannot be used in a jam band setting.  Jam bands are known for their rootsy, folksy outlook, and the kora fits in well with that type of approach.

Floating is an enjoyable demonstration of Cogswell’s talents as a singer/songwriter.

Review by Alex Henderson

3 stars out of 5