ROOTS / COUNTRY
Soul (EMI Nashville)
"I need a melody without a memory," Eric Church sings on Russian Roulette from Heart, one of his two new albums. While revisiting a favourite topic — the power of music and radio — the country star is making a sly reference to his terrific 2011 hit Springsteen, in which he observed, "Funny how a melody sounds like a memory."
Nothing on Heart, however, surpasses past glories or breaks ground, and the set suggests that the talented Church might benefit from a break from his longtime cast of co-writers and from his producer, the estimable Jay Joyce.
Heart on Fire is the kind of swaggering country-rocker Church excels at, and People Break is a finely wrought mid-tempo ballad. ("The ice on Hawk Lake this time of year/ Broken and busted like my bathroom mirror/ So hard to see what lies beneath/ Shattered reflections like the pieces of me.")
But the most powerful track is one Church didn’t have a hand in writing: Stick That in Your Country Song is a searing indictment of the banality of most mainstream fare.
Soul features the same players, writers, and producer, but it’s more engaging, largely because the arrangements tend to be more soulful and funky. That starts with the sinuous, slide-accented groove of Rock and Roll Found Me. And the brash, rocking Break It Kind of Guy introduces some welcome twang to the proceedings.
Wisely, Church again brings in backup singer Joanna Cotten for both albums. Her soul-drenched contributions elevate even the most pedestrian material and undercut the occasional bursts of macho bluster. ★★★ (Heart); ★★★1/2 (Soul)
STREAM THESE: Heart on Fire, Rock and Roll Found Me
— Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer
RAP / HIP HOP
Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma (New Funk Academy/Black Canopy
Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma makes a lot of sense when you learn that rapper Topaz Jones, out of Montclair, N.J, is the son of a funk musician father and an activist-scholar mom. His music combines a funky Sly and the Family Stone ethos of ensemble creation with a radical social consciousness, a potent mix that’s best taken down in one session.
Jones sings and raps alongside choirs, recordings of his friends and family, and his own layered voice. Crooning, exhorting or just letting bars fly, every voice on the album asks for the same recognition: for their Blackness and humanity to be treated as one and the same.
It’s a communal affair, from the image on the cover to an accompanying visual album that mines Jones’ hometown for material. The vibe is more hazy hangout than house party, but creating that group intimacy seems like what Jones was aiming for.
For all the sonic inspiration that the album takes from the past — velvety guitars, outer-spacey keyboards — Jones’ eyes are trained on the future. The things worth preserving will continue to be passed down, as he sings on the standout Herringbone, but what’s next? Could the generation of new forms, new ideas, and new expressions be the answer?
On Baba 70S, Jones remembers when it seemed like a pair of Nikes was all he needed. "But by the time I got ‘em they was out of style," he raps. "God got a sense of humour, learn how to smile." ★★★1/2 out of five
STREAM THIS: Herringbone
— Jesse Bernstein, Philadelphia Inquirer
L’Abîme (Multiple Chord Music)
This self-titled album is the debut release of a Quebec-based quintet with Hugo Blouin on bass, Alex Dodier on flute and saxophone, Gabriel Genest on tenor and clarinet, Jean-Philippe Godbout on drums and Jonathan Turgeon on piano and compositions. The title of the album translates as "the abyss," which is an interesting comment in itself.
This album could be considered important in the Canadian jazz scene. It reflects a carefully carried-out conception of working within the genre to capture influences that range from rock to the classical style and harmonies of people such as Olivier Messiaen. Turgeon’s compositions, developed over several years, move effortlessly across these disintegrating boundaries to aid in their incremental destruction. There is a powerful sense of unwavering understanding of that reality among the musicians. The tight harmonies and completely blended solos speak to a process that is at once spontaneous and yet always within a clean structure.
The opening track, a gentle Requiem, sets up the album’s style without the usual uptempo start that most albums employ. The title track begins with a solo bass riff and then develops into a rhythmically complex and dance-like mood, although dancing to this track could be dangerous while trying to figure out the beat. There is a three-part suite called Le Culte that drifts from almost eerie to gently melodic to dissonant. Experimental sounds are delivered with consummate ease. Possibly the most "out there" set of tracks, it still maintains a fascinating compositional foundation and melodic feel. L’Etang au Crepuscule ends the album in a peaceful mood.
This album is a delight in many ways, from adventurous and challenging to simple peace and enjoyment. Highly recommended. ★★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: L’Abîme, Requiem
— Keith Black
J.S. Bach, The Six Partitas (Hyperion)
Iranian-born harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani performs the second offering in his ongoing series of J. S. Bach’s complete keyboard works, with his latest release, Six Partitas, named independent British recording label Hyperion’s Record of the Month.
Since marking his London debut in 2009, the award-winning artist has been carving out a reputation, not only for his impressive artistry, but also for his sheer versatility, including performances spanning centuries-old music to more cutting-edge, contemporary fare.
Esfahani attacks each suite with conviction while bringing out the different tonal colours and character of each individual movement, as well as among the six works themselves. While it’s tempting to say he excels at the quicker-paced, highly ornamented dance-inspired movements, including the respective Gigues of Partita No 1 in B flat major, BWV825 and Partita No 4 in D major, BWV828 — which he does — Esfahani also leads listeners into more introspective worlds with the leisurely Sarabande of Partita No 3 in A minor, BWV827, or darkly dramatic opening Sinfonia of Partita No 2 in C minor, BWV826. It’s fascinating to hear his idiomatic touch during the clearly articulated Tempo di Minuetta of Partita No 5 in G major, BWV829, or more percussive accents during the Passepied of Partita No 5 in G major, BWV829, with his contrapuntal work always clear and precise.
The artist’s self-penned liner notes offer historical context and intellectual analysis for each work, making this album a welcome addition to the J.S. Bach keyboard discography. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THIS: Partita No 2 in C minor, BWV826, Sinfonia
— Holly Harris