Tag Archives: soul

EP Review: Blaqstarr – The Divine

Blaqstarr’s Divine EP is a dedication to feminine perfection and an offering to Gaia. But this is still a Blaqstarr record; like previous offerings, it’s hyperactive and sex-charged, albeit built more for the bedroom than the club. Over just six songs, Blaqstarr moves further down the rabbit hole, continuing to push and pull at the confines of Baltimore club music, crafting something more soulful and dramatic than ever before.

Serving as an introduction to the bizarre trip that follows, “All the World” kicks off the EP. Chopped vocal loops and frenetic live drums build to a crescendo under Blaqstarr’s off-time (and ocassionally off-key) crooning. The title track picks up where “All the World” left off, focusing those Neptunesque live drums and bouncy melody. It builds predictably until the mid-song breakdown. Over droning guitars and an underlying Bmore beat, Blaq freaks out with a call-and-response refrain of “Can I lick your ice cream?” Bringing both strands back together is the kind of chaos for which he’s known.

One of the strongest songs on the EP is actually a reworking of a track that has been around since at least 2007. “Rider Girl” is a poignant tribute to deceased Baltimore legend K Swift. Falling somewhere between “Supastarr” and “Automatic Lover” in Blaqstarr’s body of work, the song serves as a bridge between the club music that Swift championed and the new school that Blaqstarr owns and operates.

The strength of the EP is Blaqstarr’s skill in digging deeper into the roots and relatives of Baltimore club, refreshing a sound that is starting to stagnate. “Wonder Woman” is a bluesy jam steeped in P-funk, conjuring images of Blaq armed with just an acoustic guitar. His off-kilter line “she licked the gun / when she done / and said revenge is sweet” and the ghost of a club beat just below the surface are both unnerving and enticing. “Oh My Darlin” is Blaqstarr at his most minimal, featuring only haunting synth lines, wistful vocals, and a Prince meets Kanye rhythm. The EP closes with the even-more melancholy “Turning Out,” a true 808 heartbreaker.

While The Divine might not feature a breakthrough single like “Shake It to the Ground,” it does more to cement Blaqstarr as an essential voice in music – someone unafraid to confront expectations and worship in his own way.

Janelle Monae @ Black Cat, 3/15/10

Janelle Monae is an alien, an outsider, a misfit. Confounding critics and listeners since appearing on the Big Boi- curated Got Purp? Volume 2 back in 2005, she’s also been Exhibit A in one of the music industry’s most persistent and perplexing failings: what to do with black alternative artists. For an industry that hasn’t used the term “race records” since 1958, not a lot has changed, especially for artists that challenge the “hip-hop, R&B or nothing” paradigm. Unlike the census form, there isn’t an “other” box to check. Just ask Saul Williams, K-Os, and Kenna.

But all of that may be changing, with the little-d democratizing of the digital age, especially for an artist like Monae. At the Black Cat on Monday to kick-off her ArchAndroid tour, her performance art-cum-concert even made a few tongue in cheek references to Twitter, Facebook, and God forbid, MySpace. And playing to a sold-out crowd, something must be working. Maybe the wave of (rightly deserved) hype that she’s been riding for nearly half a decade is finally ready to break.

With Monae not taking the stage until two and half hours after doors opened, the audience was anxious, to say the least, as introductory music and video played until around 10:30. But any ill will was quickly forgotten as the performance kicked off. Monae, in trademark throwback trappings, stayed “in character” the entire show, with her herky-jerky dance moves and impressive vocal range. She was joined on stage by an on-spot three piece band and a few other performance artists, throwing balloons and noise makers into the first rows.

The songs of ArchAndroid dominated the set; only “Sincerely, Jane” from her debut EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite made an appearance, bittersweet for fans hoping to hear favorites like “Violet Stars Happy Hunting” and “Many Moons.” However, the first singles off her debut full length, the smooth, swinging “Tightrope” and the stirring “Cold War,” are in familiar enough territory that fans, old and new alike, will be singing and dancing along in no time.

After a dense 45 minute set that moved between operatic ballads and jams that just drip funk, it was time for Monae to blast off and head for her home planet. But not before fearlessly crowdsurfing the entire crowd, threatening to brain herself on the low ceilings at the Cat. Forgoing an encore for an after party at the Renaissance was an interesting choice, although I don’t know how many restless androids took her up on the offer. ArchAndroid lands on May 18.

VV Brown @ DC9, 2/19/10

Do you guys like rock ‘n’ roll music?” For the crowd at British songstress VV Brown’s sold-out Friday show at DC9, the answer was a resounding “yes.”

The music world is constantly faced with revivals of past styles; everything old is eventually shined into something new. Most of Brown’s debut Travelling Like the Light takes the form of a rock n’ roll & doo wop pastiche that recalls the pioneers of 50s and 60s pop music. It’s not necessarily novel territory (Brian Setzer revived similar sounds in both the 80s and 90s), but Brown does put her own spin on the ball. Her bouncy vocals are strong enough to carry the hook heavy songs, and she cuts an imposing figure on stage: a 5’11” Lady Gaga-meets-Janelle Monae hybrid.

Taking the stage in a Gaga-ish masquerade get-up, Brown and her backing band launched into “Everybody,” a toe-tapper that sounds like “Black Betty” with a disco chorus. Next up was “Game Over,” aided by backing tracks – a disappointing conceit for someone so dedicated to recreating the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs are strong enough to stand on their own without the note-for-note production found on the album.

The crowd thoroughly enjoyed the set, dancing and singing along at the sock hop throwback. A cover of Drake’s hit “Best I Ever Had” was a crowd-pleaser, as was the swinging surf rocker “Crying Blood,” augmented by a reggae remix that let Brown take the crowd “back to the islands.” Closing the set was one of the strongest singles from her album, “Shark in the Water,” a strummer reminiscent of KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.”

Another artist on the BBC Sound of 2009 list, VV Brown offers a fresh take on classic sounds – and a fun experience for those who were too young to jump, jive, and wail during the late 90s.

The Foreign Exchange @ Black Cat, 10/25/09

The Foreign Exchange is the Postal Service of soul music: an up-and-coming producer joins a lead vocalist on a side project that is completed in true 21st century fashion, without sitting down in a studio to collaborate. Both projects have spawned albums that are modern classics. Both even chose tongue-in-cheek monikers that allude to the manner of their genesis. But while Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello are on hiatus, the pairing of Phonte and Nicolay is going strong.

Last Sunday, the Foreign Exchange family brought their transcontinental soul sound to a packed house at the Black Cat. Many live performers, especially in support of albums with a host of guests, suffer when they try to recreate the record, sans featured players. The Foreign Exchange is having none of it, bringing vocalists YahZarah, Darien Brockington, and Carlita Durand and backing three-piece Zo! and the Els along for the ride. And not just any ride, but a singular experience: part concert, part musical therapy, part church revival, all designed to make the audience – as the album instructs – leave it all behind.

From the time the eight performers take the stage, the women in jaw-dropping ensembles and the men in their Sunday best, one thing is clear: Phonte is an MC in the purest sense. It’s his world, and the audience is just living in it. Due to his work as part of Little Brother, his rap skills have never been in question, and his singing voice, prominently featured on Leave It All Behind, is more than capable. But what really impressed was his ability to orchestrate the concert, unafraid to step back and shine the spotlight on someone else in service of song and show. Totally at ease on the mic, Phonte freely mixes stand-up comedy and relationship advice; the crowd could share a laugh or an “Amen!” in between bouts of musical rapture.

Leave It All Behind is a melancholy album, perfect for contemplating relationships during the fall rain. Nicolay’s beats are more trip-hop than hip-hop, taking a backseat to round basslines, jazzy piano melodies, and swelling synths. Live, the songs take on a whole new dimension, as the locked-in rhythms, four-part harmonies, and dueling keyboards wash over the audience. The music is full and powerful without losing the poignancy or complexity of the album – no small feat.

Phonte’s workmanlike vocals are a thread throughout the evening, but YahZarah “the Man-eater” and Darien “Panty Dropper” Brockington live up to their Phonte-bestowed nicknames, treating the audience to smooth, sexy lead vocals. Carlita Durand wasn’t given the opportunity to stand-out, but four voices are better than three here. And the band members are true professionals, keeping the groove going during Phonte’s “Top 7 ‘Give Me Your Love’ Countdown” (his elaborate introductions of the performers) and effortlessly shifting between R&B and bossa nova styles throughout the set.

Like the best front men, Phonte is fearless on stage, doing his best Bobby Brown on a cover of “My Prerogative,” reading a grocery list as a mid-90s reggae toaster, and rocking a radio rap medley in neo-soul style. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Turn My Swag On,” “Make Tha Trap Say Aye,” “Stanky Leg,” and “LOL Smiley Face,” as performed by the Foreign Exchange. His banter rivaled anything from last weekend’s Bentzen Ball, especially his explanation of how the refrain of “I Wanna Know” (“Okay!”) can save a relationship.

For two hours, Preacher Phonte led his flock of Foreign Exchange fans through the valley for an evening intended to rejuvenate, whether by singing, dancing, laughing, or crying. If you haven’t seen Foreign Exchange live, do your soul the favor.