Monthly Archives: August 2013

vibes+stuff: sarob’s “decent.” LP Reviewed

sarob

sarob

The Midwest has proven itself as a space for birth, or rebirth, for black music. Rhythm and blues, jazz and hip-hop have all experienced various incarnations here and produced a wild crop of viable acts.

One young man in particular from Dayton, Ohio (a city once known as a part of a larger whole of the “Funk Capitol of the World”) has made a conscious decision to enter the competitive waters of hip-hop; does that Midwest sensibility grace his work?

In his own words Robby Tate, a sophomore at Denison University, described tapping into the creative ethos of the Midwest, “I was trying to figure out my voice and my message. I knew that I had a lot of emotions that I either didn’t (want to) express or couldn’t convey in a way to make people care. So I tried to make it sound cool while keeping it unique, personal and not generic.”

sarob is the manifestation of Tate as an artist; he decided to reexamine a passion that began in a high school notebook full of rhymes, schemes and (unlikely) dreams. The exposure of college obviously quickened his heart enough to return to his closeted pipe dream and make it a reality.

Orbiting his self-professed heroes Mos Def and Q-Tip, sarob took his high school lyrics and began transforming them based on his new happenings, “It became more about personal experiences and making them apply universally. So essentially every day I would write and edit in my iPhone. I’d send verses to my friends to see what they thought.”

debut. LP cover

debut. LP cover

Like the mentioned emcees, sarob’s digital debut decent. blends head-bobbing jazz, soul and other surprising sample snatches that groove and rock.

An example of the musical compass set on debut. can be heard on the languid haze of “Tequila Mockingbird”; two other similar arrangements beam on “The Half-Decent Doodles (Vibes+Stuffs)” and the slightly more beat elevated “Yoga Pants”. sarob acquaints himself well on the majority of the tracks, barring the occasional beginner’s clumsiness, he is concise and hypnotic as heard on “Bum Raps”.

I called it decent. because that’s what it was to me. It wasn’t entirely focused, I recorded it and eventually threw it out there for people to listen to. It was haphazard but it was just a start. I just wanted to get the experience and it was time for me to get rid of all those what if’s”.

For something that may be just a passing fancy, sarob captures the restlessness of the black, upper-middle class male finding his way through a post-high school / collegiate adulthood journey.

With a sharper set of material and more practice, sarob could be one of those indie names to come out of Ohio and lend credence to the Midwest art cauldron theory. Rank: Above Average

[Editor’s Note: debut. is available for free as a digital download here; for additional information on sarob visit the aforementioned link and his Twitter page.-QH]

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Jody Watley: From ‘Soul Train’ to “Nightlife”

The Music of Jody Watley

The Music of Jody Watley

In her fifth decade as a recording artist, Jody Watley bears no marks of fatigue. The Chicago born (and later) Los Angelino’s intrinsic sense of cool and fashion-forward appeal pushed her from unforgettable ‘Soul Train’ dancer staple to one-third of one of the most beloved / influential R&B groups of its era, Shalamar.

After departing Shalamar in 1983, Watley relocated to the United Kingdom; there she found time to feature on the Bob Geldolf’s star-studded charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984. Cutting with the pop visionaries The Art of Noise, Watley turned out “Where the Boys Are” and “Girls Night Out” in 1985. Both songs were edgy but didn’t find the larger audience they needed; undaunted Watley set about preparing for her return home with a goal of succeeding solo.

Watley in the 1980's

Watley, circa 1987

Her resulting 1987 eponymous debut, on the MCA label, became a genre-definer and spun off hard hitters: “Looking For a New Love,” “Don’t You Want Me” and “Still a Thrill” to name just three. Watley worked alongside her soon-to-be husband / Minneapolis magus André Cymone; Watley wasn’t just a production puppet. She and Cymone handled the three subsequent LPs that came in the wake of her Grammy award-winning debut.  Getting right into the metallics of New Jack Swing, Watley’s second album Larger Than Life (1989) lived up to its bold title and kept her in step with her peers Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams and Karyn White.

Watley’s third (Affairs of the Heart, 1991) and fourth (Intimacy, 1993) records saw a sales slide, but Watley’s mingling of neoteric and classic R&B wasn’t far off base from the neo-soul movement that gained traction as the 1990’s wore on. In particular, her single “When a Man Loves a Woman” (from Intimacy) fit right into the returning socially conscious scene in black music. Watley took it a step further on the alternate versions of the song (“When a Man Loves a Man,” “When a Woman Loves a Woman”); there she affirmed her connection to the GLBTQ fans that stretched back to her ‘Soul Train’ days.

After eight years at MCA Records, Watley departed the label. In one of her many career rebirths, she began her own indie-label Avitone Records; the imprint is still active today. Her fifth album Affection (1995) was the fruit of this labor. The title song continued her progressive streak at embracing all walks of life; she remained funky and fierce as ever on album sides “The Ways (Parts 1 & 2)” and “Pride & Joy”.

Watley returned, briefly, to the ranks of a major label (Atlantic) with Affection’s follow-up, Flower (1998). In her own words, Watley summarized how the Atlantic deal caused a slight creative detour for her, “I didn’t want to make another record that felt specifically more R&B at that point. I felt happy and wanted something groovy to reflect where I was, as always. I wanted to make a cutting edge international dance record, with soul and excitement, modern!”

Watley, Circa 2003

Watley, circa 2003

Flower had Watley yet again rework her R&B roots with help from the likes of Malik Pendleton, Rahsaan Patterson and an old friend, Rakim. “Off the Hook” was the U.S. R&B Top 30 hit for the project; its D-Dot Remix had Watley and the aforementioned Rakim reunited for the first time since their groundbreaking partnership on “Friends” from Larger Than Life. Atlantic Records strangely shelved the LP Stateside and released it, sans promotion, in Britain.

Watley became disillusioned but found her muse again in the dance music of 4Hero’s Two Pages (1998) LP. Watley and dance weren’t strangers; her first hits were known for filling floors. Her early work with David Morales on the Intimacy single (and dance hit) “Ecstasy” even pre-dated his remix work with Mariah Carey. Dub, chill out and house were mixed in with her established urban flavors and birthed The Saturday Night Experience Volume 1 (1999), a Japan only release.

Modern, lavish and ambitious the record put her ahead of the curve. Later in 2003, Watley released Midnight Lounge in the United States as a way to bring her American fans up to speed with her fusion work. The album boasted features from Roy Ayers, Junior Vasquez and Masters At Work with Watley at the center of it all. This brave frontier Watley had been mapping influenced old peers (Janet Jackson) and new followers (Amerie) on their albums in the aftermath of Midnight Lounge’s release.

Jody Watley Through the Years

2006 was the year of The Makeover. Partnered with the now-defunct Virgin Megastore chain, The Makeover boasted new material with engaging covers of her own work and other artists that inspired her. Its British repackaging appeared in 2009 with several tracks reworked, removed and added. Since that time Watley has been hard at work on her 10th LP, tentatively and aptly titled Chameleon. Her new single “Nightlife” is a hot number that bears both a vintage and contemporary disco pace. Watley continues to define her artistic destiny unapologetically; it’s something in the reality television era of ‘R&B Divas’ that should be savored.

[Editor’s Note: For current information on Jody Watley, visit her official site. Her current single “Nightlife” is available on iTunes now.-QH]

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Shakedown: Blondie’s “The Curse of Blondie” Turns 10

LP Cover to The Curse of Blondie

LP Cover to The Curse of Blondie

The Curse of Blondie, Blondie’s eighth studio project, and second “comeback” effort, has become a bit of a misunderstood album. Focused and vigorous in ways that 1999’s No Exit was not, it received a fair amount of mixed opinions upon release.

Did the negativity have merit or was it the same type of critical static the group had faced as far back as “Heart of Glass” and Parallel Lines (1978)? Proving that rock was more a state of mind than necessarily a permanent soundbed (read: prison), Blondie’s unconventional approach to punk, power pop and new wave has always drawn detractors and spectators. The Curse of Blondie continued that tradition without missing a beat.

The History

Deborah Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar, bass), Jimmy Destri (keyboards, synthesizers) and Clem Burke (drums, percussion) were again the central nucleus of Blondie that kept the group’s brand substantial. After the modest victory won with No Exit, off the back its hit single “Maria,” work started on The Curse of Blondie after a move to the Sony / Epic imprint in the early 2000’s.

The sessions were produced by Craig Leon and promised to build on the “momentum” of No Exit; the tapes were withheld when financial negotiations broke down between Blondie and Leon. Thus the record had to start again. Taking advantage of this misfortune, Blondie switched gears and turned to Steve Thompson and Jeff Bova to produce. Additional writing contributions came from Romy Ashby, Craig Bartock, Leigh Foxx, John Vitale and Gretchen Langheld. It ended up as a wise decision for the band who not only regained the footing they’d lost, it resulted in another patented compelling / controversial Blondie album.

The Record

Taking into consideration that the last thoroughly satisfying record Blondie dropped was Autoamerican (1980), there were sentiments of unification and celebration on The Curse of Blondie missing from the two LPs that preceded it. Not at all a return to their ironic doo-wop-punk persona characterized on Blondie (1976) and Plastic Letters (1977), instead it sought to achieve the energy and fashionably ironic heights of Eat to the Beat (1979) and the referenced Autoamerican. Both of the latter recordings took to more pop-oriented playgrounds, but with their rough-and-tumble rock delivery it made those reconfigurations irresistible.

Where No Exit stumbled in acclimatizing to the sonic textures of popular music at the end of 1990’s, The Curse of Blondie embraced that contemporaneous shine that the first half of the last decade promised. That aura permeated Curse, whether it was the hypno-techno sitars that opened the off-kilter “Magic (Asadoya Yunta)” or the trembling keys that danced on “The Tingler,” Blondie seemed to be comfortable making use of studio technology without being subsumed by it here.

L to R: Burke, Destri, Harry, & Stein

L to R: Burke, Destri, Harry, & Stein

Indeed, the band was playing tightly as they’ve always done; the glistening, (if crushing) guitars courtesy of Stein led “Undone” and “End to End.” Burke’s drumming was the spine of “End to End,” keeping the arrangement driving without bludgeoning the listener; the programming, helmed by Destri, behind the nu-metal / rap bruiser “Shakedown” allowed its production temper to fluctuate with Harry’s snarled, sexy choruses and verses.

Harry’s voice, previously a rapturous blend of a purr and a coo, had aged finely into an authoritative, transfixing presence. Harry’s command of herself lent a siren quality to “Golden Rod”; “Songs of Love” made an allusion to Harry’s Jazz Passengers past with her voice snuggly intertwined with the smoky horns.

In vibe, Curse aligned itself closest to Autoamerican with its genre-hopping as three of its highlights demonstrated: the coquette, reggae construct (their fourth) “Background Melody (The Only One),” the rolling thunder of “Diamond Bridge” and the triumphant “Good Boys”. “Good Boys” was the lone number not produced by Steve Thompson, it was Jeff Bova’s only contribution to the record. “Good Boys” was one of those “Blondie moments” that could only be described as pure bliss and brilliance; from Harry’s alien vocal to a beat that keenly brought the disco and CBGB back together for the first time since “Heart of Glass,” “Good Boys” was one of their greatest songs cut.

The album did play a bit longer than it needed to; “Hello Joe” and “Desire Brings Me Back” easily could have been left off. They weren’t failures, but lesser b-side material that wandered and splintered the coherence of Curse. That said, Curse was smarter, sexier and wackier than No Exit. In other words, it was the follow-up Autoamerican deserved.

The Impact

Single Cover to "Good Boys"

Single Cover to “Good Boys”

Epic Records held claim to Blondie in the United Kingdom, that was where the album was released first. In a move that echoed Blondie’s origins, America received the album a year later on 4/6/04 (via Sanctuary Records) while Britain got the record on 10/13/03.

The first (and only) single serviced from Curse was “Good Boys”; the song featured mixes by production icon Giorgio Moroder. Moroder had worked with Blondie on their 1980 smash “Call Me” from the ‘American Gigolo’ soundtrack. The Scissor Sisters, a year from exploding onto the pop scene themselves, also contributed a remix for the single.

“Good Boys” placed at UK #12 and AU #37, barring those appearances the single didn’t find its legs. As such, no other singles were selected from the project. Curse met sagging chart sales globally: U.K. #36, ARIA #83, Germany #84, U.S. #160. The subsequent tour for Curse came out on top, which made the commercial drop in pressure post-No Exit so curious. The music pundits opinions were unsurprisingly split too.

Jason Damas, of All Music Guide, gave a fair perspective on the LP:

No Exit was a textbook example of everything a reunion album shouldn’t be — sloppily written, dominated by embarrassing attempts to sound current (especially the Coolio [!] duet in the metallic title track), and calculatedly commercial. So it’s no surprise that when Blondie decided to try again five years later — when Debbie Harry was actually old enough to be a Golden Girl, few were paying attention and The Curse of Blondie didn’t even get a U.S. release. But what’s shocking is that this, and not No Exit, is what should’ve been Blondie’s big comeback effort.

That isn’t to say that The Curse of Blondie is a classic Blondie disc, but it’s the first good one since at least Autoamerican, and features one of their best-ever singles in “Good Boys.” “Good Boys” is prime Blondie the way they should be — pulsing layers of synthesizers are punctuated by sharp guitar riffs and the whole prize is dressed up in an infectious hook that’s one part bubblegum, one part sexy chanteuse.

Adam Williams, of PopMatters, shared his thoughts on Curse’s weaknesses:

At first listen, The Curse of Blondie appears to be a futile attempt at covering all musical bases, including new wave, euro-pop, spoken word, rock, and even club rave. The album opens with the amateurish “Shakedown”, a song anchored by inane rap lyrics that more closely resembles a cheap Christina Aguillera track than anything Blondie-esque. Fortunately, the solid “Good Boys” and “Undone” follow, evidence that Blondie 2004 can still summon enough of its Blondie 1974 sensibilities to sound convincing.

Therein lies the problem: While the band retains the capacity to produce at a high level, the remainder of the album is punctuated by a veritable roller coaster of quality, resulting in a decidedly inconsistent effort. One moment the band is tearing through the hard-rocking, hook-driven “Last One In the World”, the next, listeners are being put to sleep with the mediocre “Songs of Love”, or left cringing at the trippy synthesized sonic squalor of “Magic (Asadoya Yunta)”.

The recent ageist bomb often hurled at Blondie to “act their age” was hypocritical. Many chimed for the group to “hang it up,” but they also expected the group to make in-roads into current trends, some of which they helped define. It put the band in a catch 22 position. One can’t be timeless and create art. Art at its best is slightly messy after all, at least in the great Blondie style. But the lens through which art is viewed determines the affinity toward it.

“Good Boys”

Directed By: Jonas Åkerlund

The Curse of Blondie and its prophetic title held that the group couldn’t escape their past, but they weren’t afraid to find their future either. Unabated, Harry soldiered on to release her fifth solo album Necessary Evil (2007) before rejoining Blondie to issue Panic of Girls (2011) and the upcoming Ghosts of Download in 2013; Ghosts of Download is rumored to be Blondie’s swan song. The Curse of Blondie sadly ended up as Jimmy Destri’s last commitment to Blondie; it left Burke, Harry and Stein as the only original members standing. Currently, they’ve fleshed out the group with Leigh Foxx (bass), Matt-Katz Bohen (keyboards, piano) and Tommy Kessler (guitar).

Listening to Curse objectively one can hear a group pitched perfectly between looking backwards and forward. Despite a patch or two, The Curse of Blondie played as their most consistent album since Autoamerican. If Blondie is truly “cursed,” their only ailment is their impulse to create first and ask questions later. If that isn’t rock ‘n’ roll, I’m not sure what is. Rank: Semi-Classic

[Editor’s Note: The Curse of Blondie is in print and available physically and digitally. For current information on Blondie, visit their official site.-QH]

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