Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley – a beautiful record in the songwriter’s creative comfort zone

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It might be interesting to note that, over the last two weeks, I’ve been working on two reviews pretty much in parallel. One was Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution, the other is this week’s entry, Take Me to the Alley by Gregory Porter.

On paper, these records have a lot in common. Both are 2016 releases by musicians whose careers have really taken off in the last few years. Though it can be argued that Esperanza’s level of fame transcends the inconspicuous jazz niche turning her into a superstar of pop music proportions, in the jazz genre, she and Gregory are both household names. Both the records’ predecessors have earned Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album (Radio Music Society in 2013 and Liquid Spirit in 2014).

Still, the artists’ approach could not be more different. Esperanza retreated to the memory of her earliest artistic aspirations to find her inner “Emily” and release a work that distinguished, knowledgeable jazz reviewers have called “intense, intelligent and intrepid” (*wink*).  Meanwhile, Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley sounds like it could have easily been Disc 2, had Liquid Spirit been a double album.

If the songs were shuffled and you had never before heard a Gregory Porter tune, you’d probably have a hard time telling which songs belong together. Now, given that Liquid Spirit is one of the best vocal jazz records of the last decade, this uniformity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was the first thing I noticed upon playing the album.

In my opinion, “Holding On” is a bit of an unfortunate choice for an opening track. I can see the reasoning behind it, as it’s a reworked, heavily porterized version of his collaboration with British electronic music duo Disclosure. However, given that his two previous records had some of the most impactful opening tracks of any record in any genre in recent memory (I’m talking, of course, about “Painted on Canvas” and “No Love Dying”), the rather unspectacular “Holding On” seems like an uninspired choice. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that Gregory Porter is simply incapable of producing a song that couldn’t be described as warm and beautiful. But “Holding On” just doesn’t compare to its predecessors on any level.

Unfortunately, “Don’t Lose Your Steam” does little to pick up the pace, in spite of its inspiring lyrics, dedicated to Porter’s young son. Already, even the track placement is reminiscent of his previous record, with “Holding On” and “Don’t Lose Your Steam” playing the parts of “No Love Dying” and “Liquid Spirit” but failing to evoke their dynamism and raw emotion. Two songs in, Take Me to the Alley sounds like it runs the risk of becoming merely a collection of Liquid Spirit B-sides.

Then, along comes the title track to save the day – an absolutely superb ballad right up there with the best Porter has ever produced. With instantly recognizable piano chords, the vocalist’s warm, honest delivery, beautiful lyrics that hint at the second coming without becoming excessively clerical and perfect harmony vocals by Alicia Olatuja, this should have absolutely been the opening song. Anyone who thinks otherwise might claim to know music, but has little understanding of storytelling.

“Day Dream” is a decent song made good by the warm, love-filled poetry, as Porter affectionately observes his son Demyan in the child’s imagined environment.

He’s satisfied to dream his whole life away

Candy coated castles life of play

Broomsticks are his magic cars

Climb aboard and you’ll ride the stars

Do you remember it seems like yesterday

Getting older

Growing taller

Getting smarter

He’ll find his way

Rocket ships that never leave his hand

But he’s in space ‘cos he’s a rocket ship man

Got to fight in some galaxy wars

Climb aboard and you’ll ride the stars

Got to get home to kiss his mama goodnight

By now, the listener can recognize the typical Gregory Porter set up even in the instrumentation, which his long-time band makes sure is always smooth and homogeneous, if at times formulaic. Compared to Esperanza, who seems to be on the path of experimenting with various facets of her artistry, Porter has found his musical comfort zone and is content to keep the same creative direction. Because he is an indisputably gifted songwriter, with an incredibly warm, poignant timbre, an innate feel for conveying emotion and a capable band, he is never in danger of becoming monotonous, even if he’ll also never be accused of being avant-garde.

“Day Dream” is followed by “Consequence of Love” which serves to remind the audience that, even though he delivers swinging RnB with the same poise and dedication, Porter’s forte is still his uncanny talent for producing pitch-perfect ballads.

The record’s dynamic switches with the catchy and clever “In Fashion”, one of the highlights for its punchy piano, ear-pleasing melody and witty poetry.

We’re never caught in picture frames

The paparazzi know our names

They know like fashion

Our love is not for real

The weathers fine but in your mind

You need that flare and so you wear

Big blue fur and feathered hair

To fit your skin

Think I better let it go

Think I better let it go

Cos I’m thinking I’m last year’s runway passion

No longer in fashion

And I find myself obsessed

By how you dress

And whom you see when you’re without me

Dedicated to his late mother, the soft, simple “More Than a Woman” is one of his most tender ballads, while the touching “In Heaven”, whose captivating tempo belies the sadness of its lyrics, is sure to deeply resonate with anyone who has ever lost a loved one.

Two powerful ballads preface the closing tracks, “Insanity” and “Don’t be a Fool”. The latter has one of the most beautiful choruses in the repertoire of a musician whose greatest strength is writing flawless ballad choruses, and lyrics that touch on loss and regret.

Don’t be a fool

Don’t give your nights to someone else

While giving days to those who really love you

Don’t be a fool like me

And give your life to someone else

While faking love to those who really love you

The closing line-up is a bit surprising. Not so much for the swinging, funky “Fan The Flames”, which has some great moments for tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, but for the upbeat, mischievous and downright adventurous (by Gregory Porter standards) “French African Queen”. It’s a fun, catchy tune in the vein of “In Fashion”, though it seems like a bit of an odd choice to close a mellow, slow-paced album like this with shouts of “Oui, oui”.

In his newest record, Gregory Porter has produced pretty much a direct continuation to Liquid Spirit, though without the carefully contrasted narrative that made the latter one of the great works of modern vocal jazz. Still, as I mentioned before, Porter is incapable of producing a bad song. His powerful personality, distinctive timbre (on the low end of the spectrum I think few vocalists can keep up) and a high standard when it comes to songwriting make for a splendid body of work, in spite of the fact that he is clearly sticking to a formula that should, in theory, make his music sound monotonous. Perhaps his greatest talent is his ability to keep doing the same thing while thoroughly avoiding to fall into the trap of repetition.

With Take me to the Alley, Gregory Porter’s chosen creative path is clearly marked. Even if he doesn’t stray from it for the rest of his career, I for one am happy to follow.

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Emily’s D+Evolution by Esperanza Spalding – intense, intelligent and intrepid

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One record I was really looking forward to this year was Esperanza Spalding’s fifth studio album, Emily’s D+Evolution released on Concord ten years after her debut, Junjo.

Esperanza is one of those musicians that just seem too good to be true. Basically, her entire career has been one long, continuous hype. It should really be impossible for the young songwriter, bass player and vocalist to rise to these almost ridiculous expectations and yet she does it every single time, with each new record.

“Notorious” for snatching away the Best New Artist Grammy from Justin fucking Bieber in 2011 (thus salvaging what little credibility NARAS has left), Esperanza is a rare phenomenon in a genre that generally doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves: a superstar.

To steal a lyric from her new record, she is “exceptionally pretty” but also exceptionally talented. She has the confidence of a seasoned veteran but the energy of a hungry young artist. She is intelligent without being condescending and daring without being reckless. She’s had a unique career trajectory, unceasingly rising to new heights and everything she’s put out has been a gem. It was bound to stop somewhere.

Bullshit – no, it wasn’t!

After a four-year break, Esperanza put forth her most ambitious work yet. Emily’s D+Evolution is essentially a concept record, a collection of compositions that perfectly reflects the vision and boundless energy of an artist at the peak of her creative force. It’s a record that bridges so-called genres, joyfully experimenting with the possibilities of the composer’s talent and managing the rare feat of sounding at the same time enlightened and naïve in its lyricism. In other words, it’s exactly what it should be at this stage in her career.

When I reviewed her previous record for BlindedBySound, I called it “another impressive offering from Esperanza and, no-doubt, an important step forward on the road to leaving a very serious musical legacy.” If Radio Music Society was a step forward, Emily is a giant leap of moon-landing proportions. Everything is on point, there is not a single misstep. In her previous work, I pointed out her excessively straightforward lyrics as somewhat lacking in finesse. Here, this candidness no longer feels juvenile, but ripe, clever, playful and sexy.

The record starts with the words “see this pretty girl, watch this pretty girl flow” and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing (in the good way, not the way I do whenever I accidentally hear a tune by Sean Paul).

“Good Lava” is the perfect opening song – provocative, loud and unhinged. As a listener, you instantly realize that this is an entirely new creative direction as Matthew Stevens’ Marc Ribot-influenced guitar, Esperanza’s own Pastorius-tinged bass and Justin Tyson’s drums heavily tilt the sound towards funk and even rock, where it basically remains throughout the whole album.

Still, although the sound is different, Esperanza’s charismatic delivery is the same in her portrayal of her alter-ego, Emily. On “Good Lava”, she teases:

 

lone ranger,

I see you like the view

wond’ring from a distance

what my pretty peak can do

come brave me

[…]

you stranger

one day are gonna be

planting your own flag of

conquered fear and fantasy

right on me

 

For “Unconditional Love”, Emily reverts to her Esperanza-persona, with vocals that call to mind the sound of Radio Music Society in spite of the pronounced presence of guitarist Stevens (a constant throughout the record, which turns out to be almost as much a showcase of his talent as Spalding’s). Undoubtedly a beautiful song making good use of the singer’s splendid voice, it might have benefited from a different position on the record. This way, it slightly takes away from absorbing the full impact of the new creative direction.

The narrative balance is quickly restored with “Judas”, one of the highlights, both in its heavy, impactful sound and conscious, ruminative lyrics, that demonstrate the songwriter’s evident improvement in an area that used to be a noticeable shortcoming.

 

judas, you know the

lonesome road

don’t ya collectin’ bottle caps

of rum

honest sinning to chase the

blues

blur ya ‘til kingdom come

take a little girl who gets to see her

mama broke down

now she’s a lady made for

the modern world

my life

but if you ask my advice us

raging girls

are china dolls fed up with bull that follows

all the way down

digging up holy scriptures to

shame her while she drowns

but if you ask my advice that

shallow grave is a bargain

 next to judgment day

it’s only a matter of time

honey

good money

sinks through her teeth

she’s not evil

forgive this innocent wrecking

ball (man-made)

 

In “Earth to Heaven” the vocalist’s rich, clean delivery contrasts with the band’s rough, prog-rock energy and the poignant, determined poetry.

 

there are no perfect

amends here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there

there’s no promise or test

here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there (soldier)

no virgins or saints here

you get to just keep on

getting there getting there

all good children and evil

are even here

 just getting there

war man’s cross on

their shoulders

kings die ringed in gold

slaves die consoled

on the other side

a meek’s reward

is better

like a pearly resort

except without a report

from hell

how on Earth can you tell?

Equally forceful and another one of the record’s highlights, “One” sees the vocalist at her dynamic best, masterfully playing off of Karriem Riggins’ drums and a short but biting guitar solo to again create a powerfully contrasted track. And since every reviewer and their pet iguana mentioned Joni Mitchell, I’ll take this opportunity to confirm that yes, the artist does draw from Mitchell in her storytelling and delivery and she does so elegantly, giving a nod to a creative influence while still decidedly retaining her individuality.

“Rest in Pleasure”, a soft, sexy counterpoint to the previous two tracks – and once again notable for Matthew Stevens’ excellent contribution – allows Spalding to step back from the heavier narrative of the song’s predecessors and let her hair down, before returning to a more confrontational tone with “Ebony and Ivy” and “Noble Nobles”, where her improved poetry is placed front and center, from the sarcastic recital at the start of the former to the cynicism prevalent in the latter (talking founding fathers with a free philosophy/ that don’t mention me/ or the stain of red blood on their hands/ at all).

With her characteristic charm and wit, the songwriter tackles issues of history, racial heritage, white privilege and education, as is evident in the following example from “Ebony and Ivy”.

sage grows on the mountain

you can dig it with a silver

spoon

float it off to market hawk

and talk it

from hot-air balloons

get your good

old-fashioned learnin’

hear the bell and summer’s

endin’

underneath the apple tree

time to choose a branch

and build your nest of

animosity

now we’re really

really learnin’

it’s been hard to grow outside

growin’ good at act happy

and pretend that the ivy vines

didn’t weigh our branch down

The deceptively soft and harmonious “Farewell Dolly” brings forth pressing issues of gender roles while “Elevate or Operate” with its carnival-ride intro and shades of The Jimi Hendrix Experience comments on glass ceilings and unfulfilled ambitions (so honey stop your whining, wishing, scheming/ press a floor to waste your dreams in) while “Funk the Fear” extends on the topic, berating the very thought process exposed in the former.

The record closes with a dark, almost macabre rendition of “I want it now” (Veruca Salt’s piece in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – itself a rather dark and macabre moment), which the vocalist delivers with a gleeful voracity, refusing to withhold for even a second the fact that this album is meant as an adamant creative statement.

With this brilliant, experimental album, Esperanza Spalding has created not only the best work of her career, but also the best vocal record of 2016 and a surefire contender for The Music and Myth Awards.

Massive Attack’s Heligoland – The Art of Darkness and Despair

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Though it might sometimes appear that way, The Music and Myth is not only about jazz, world music and whatever new record John Zorn puts out. I write predominantly about the aforementioned genres and projects because I feel the most comfortable in that territory, but I listen to a lot of new music every week in a wide variety of styles. Most of these binges are during my 8-to-10 hour long writing sessions as I work on my science fiction novels (which you should absolutely check out if you’re into character-driven, philosophy-prone action and adventure SF in the vein of Frank Herbert).

Anyway, sometimes, I stumble across a record, a concert or a song that will haunt me for weeks, often months and – in some cases – can even shape (or re-shape) the creative direction of my stories. For my first book, Mindguard, that record was Sofia Rei’s De Tierra y Oro and for The Vintages it was John Zorn’s 2013 Warsaw concert with The Song Project. Most recently, as I’ve been working on my third book, Ayers, I kept coming back to one particular album which made me gain a new appreciation for its creators: Massive Attacks’ 2010 release, Heligoland.

At this point I have to admit that I don’t have much experience with Massive Attack, or any form of electronic music in particular. Of course, I know who they are and I’ve heard some of their most iconic tunes, though not always conscious of the fact that I was listening to the Bristol trip-hop icons. This is something I thought about a lot as I read some of the feedback the record garnered over time and discovered that most people did not seem to enjoy it as much as I did. Reviews abound with comparisons to their earlier work and journalists continuously lament how the band has lost this-or-that perceived quality (depending on the reviewer’s personal inclinations) that used to make their music great. This is the first Massive Attack record I’ve listened to coherently and I can personally tell you I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it, so much so that it still feels fresh after more than five months. I needed no more than three seconds to know this record would follow me around for a long time.

“Pray for Rain” is the best opening track I’ve heard since Gregory Porter’s “No Love Dying” (and before that Patricia Barber’s “Code Cool”). I was already in love with its awesome baseline even before I realized, “Holy shit, this is Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio on vocals.”

I’ve loved Adebimpe’s style since hearing “DLZ” in an iconic moment of the tv show, Breaking Bad (quick note: if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad – do it! Aside from the fact that it’s one of the most well-written shows of all time it benefits from a stellar soundtrack that includes everything from Badfinger to Gnarls Barkley, from Los Cuates de Sinaloa to Wolfgang Amadeus fucking Mozart).

“Pray for Rain” is driven by Adembimpe’s powerful delivery to the extent that it feels more like a TV on the Radio tune in Massive Attack’s clothing, which doesn’t bother me, though it might bother others. Like any excellent opening track, it sets the tone for the rest of the record, which relies heavily on the contribution of its guest vocalists (sometimes to a fault according to some critics, though I personally consider the guest appearances beautifully conducted). And what about the aforementioned “tone”? It can be simply (and somewhat jokingly) described as: gloom and doom.

Heligoland is definitely a somber, almost morose work whose most intense moments come as a result of the dark, often outright disturbing lyrics.

To be clear, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But as a person who enjoys a touch of darkness in his music (from the grotesque characters populating Tom Waist records, to the self-destructive and often borderline suicidal energy of Florence Welch and the moribund regret ubiquitous in Johnny Cash’s American series) I can state that Massive Attack definitely understand the subtleties of conveying despair. This grasp of darkness and hopelessness is exemplified to perfection in “Pray for Rain”.

Dull residue of what once was

A shattered cloud of swirling doves

And their eyes change

As they learn to see through flames

And their necks crane

As they turn to pray for rain

From the apocalyptic anxiety of the opener to the psychotropic bubblegum plasticity of “Babel” (with Martina Topley-Bird on vocals) and the neurotic, techno-gospel of “Spitting the Atom”, the band essentially conveys various different nuances within the same spectrum of darkness. As opposed to many reviewers, I don’t see this as static or listless, but rather careful study of the record’s main theme.

This so-called study reaches its apex in the powerful “Splitting the Atom” where the deep mutters and ghostly lyrics of Daddy G and 3D contrast with the rapturous crooning of reggae legend Horace Andy to produce, in my opinion, the highlight of the record (alongside “Pray for Rain”).

It’s getting colder outside

Your rented space

They shadow box and they

Paper chase

It never stops

And we’ll never learn

No hope without dope

The jobless return

“Girl I love You” retains Horace Andy, whose angelic voice evokes the melancholic quality of a bitter, distant memory. The deep, metallic baseline and dissonant horns get more and more forceful, finally breaking down into utter sonic chaos, before the record swiftly shifts gears with the hypnagogic “Psyche”, where Martina Topley-Bird’s cyberspace delivery compliments the evocative lyrics.

Conjure me as a child

Slipping down a webside

Stretch up I cannot reach him

Jumping up they drag him from the water

[…]

Ridicule they won’t allow

Quench abuse and let love flower

Rip the cage out of your chest

Let the chaos rule the rest

Unfortunately, “Flat of the Blade” is a creative step backwards. In spite of Guy Garvey’s faultless vocals, the song’s atmosphere seems forced and flat. The dynamic recovers – if only for an instant – with “Paradise Circus”, spearheaded by the hushed, sensuous melancholy of Hope Sandoval’s near-perfect delivery (Oh well, the devil makes us sin/ But we like it when we’re spinning in his grip) over catchy claps and a resounding bassline. The song, another one of the record’s best, slowly builds up to a dramatic ending, but its energy is lost on the follow-up, the rather bland and overtly conspicuous “Rush Minute”.

The ending restores some of the record’s initial intensity, partly with “Saturday Come Slow” – a grungy lament by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame – but mostly with the exceptional “Atlas Air”, a fitting equivalent to the powerful opener.

I know the drill

Got cells to burn

I’m dressed to kill

A mortal coil

And time is still

On secret soil

Yeah pay the bills

Cells to burn

Mouths to fill

On Boeing jets

In the sunset make glowing threats

With these words, the band closes a record that is captivatingly sophisticated, if perhaps excessively prone to introversion. With its mastery of tone and contrast, its haunting musical themes and some outstanding contributions by guest musicians, Heligoland transcends the limitations of its genre and demonstrates the band’s profound talent in the art of darkness and despair.