I’m at a loss. Every year that loss seems to extend its reach further and further. We all wonder where the sensibility and musical chops have faded away and what we’re left with are merely shells of what used to listen to. I’ll be one of the first to say, shitty music runs rampant amongst all genres in 2018. Mainstream Pop, Hip-Hop, Soul, and just about any other genre you can mention, is engulfed with “artists” who actually feel they’re making art. No, art stands the test of time. One can throw on Marvin Gaye & Tami Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and say, “Yeah, that was the shit right there.” You can throw on Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and be completely swallowed by the beauty of it. But there’s an empty space today for all of that. I guess we have to count on the old guard to continue releasing material although it’s overshadowed by a pile of shit.
I’ve been bombarded with release after releases as of late and then this one shows up, the latest by J. Mascis. I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually sat down to listen to any of his solo albums in their entirety because hey, Dinosaur Jr. is life, right? That’s not to discredit any of his other releases with The Fog, Witch, Heavy Blanket, or the amazing Sweet Apple (with John Petkovic, Tim Parnin, and Dave Sweetapple.) His new Elastic Days (Sub Pop) is his seventh solo release, which includes a live album at CBGB and a John Peel Session.
Now with Elastic Days, it seems Mascis tries to stick with handling things acoustically for the most part, stripping things down, allowing the breezy nature of the tracks’ songwriting but there are moments he can’t stay away from his Jazzmaster although I doubt anyone would have a problem with it. The opening “See You At The Movies” jangles away with Mascis’ laconic delivery, and it’s pretty much what he’s known for being. But again, none will have a problem with it, especially when he chimes in with that electric guitar solo. Hit that repeat button again and again as I’ve done and you won’t be tired of it. The opening strings on “Web So Dense” is unexpected on the morose vibe filtered through it but it’s fine because it’s his vocals that leads this one, pulling at heartstrings until he switches the song’s pace forcing an upbeat motion.
I doubt Mascis is unwittingly edging through songs without finding similarities to others. On “Sky Is All We Had” he walks down an Abbey Road, playing with Beatle-esque qualities, turning it into something distinctively his own with an ease of shifting dynamics and songwriting. It’s possibly my favorite track here, or maybe I’ve just gotten ahead of myself. The jingle-jangle of “Sometimes” is pretty sweet and easy to fall in love with while the simplicity of “I Want Dust” is remarkably addictive with his harmonizing vocals. I like J. Mascis in both modes when he’s delivering sonic landscapes of sound as well as acoustically quiet. Elastic Days delivers much of the latter.
Where does one begin with Charles Bradley? I was hesitant of listening to Black Velvet (Dunham/Daptone), his posthumous release. We share the same birth date and this year would have been his 70th birthday but he was taken much too soon. His career made a resurgence in the last 2 decades, first with fiery single releases and later with his first solo album back in 2011, No Time For Dreaming. With the new album, we could only wish he would be able to reap the rewards of all his hard work, which culminated in a television appearance on an episode of Luke Cage Season 1. But it’s Black Velvet we’re here to discuss.
There are so many stand out cuts on the new album and runs the gamut of danceable soul jams to heart-wrenching, guttural pain. Let’s start with the former though because it’ll make you move your feet, much like “Luv Jones,” with horns blaring, that organ & bass dropping over that steady beat. We all can hear the restraint on drums as they get wicked. When Bradley harmonies alongside horns and sings the chorus, that’s as perfectly balanced as it can get. Moving backwards a bit to the opening “Can’t Fight The Feeling,” Bradley knows how to deliver lovelorn lyricism with the pop the band brings to play. It’s easier done than said. “Slip Away” doesn’t move as quickly but the claves give this song an added charm throughout it but it’s Bradley’s delivery, which sounds as powerful as always, that’s the attention grabber. No matter which direction he’s moving in, his voice always makes it seem as if he’s on the brink of tears. “Fly Little Girl” takes a different approach, melding soul-searing and anthemic properties in one song.
There’s no way Charles Bradley’s name can be mentioned without wanting to rip your own heart out of your chest to hand it to your loved one. “I Feel A Change” does this with a slower tempo and Bradley’s howled vocals. My God man, it’s sadness in a bottle! And then there’s “Victim Of Love (Electric Version),” a different version of the title track of his 2013 album. Tear at your flesh, pull every strand of hair out of your head, but you still won’t be able get Bradley out of every single part of your being. He’s embedded. Like a code. You won’t care though, because it’s Charles Bradley. The Screaming Eagle Of Soul outdoes himself every time and with Black Velvet, it’s no different. We have to file him somewhere in between Marvin Gaye and James Brown, that’s some good company to be amongst.
Little Dragon returns with a new home and new release in Love Chanting (Ninja Tune) Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a Little Dragon fan but the EP leaves me wanting. Little Dragon goes full on with the dance beats here when in the past there was so much more to the group than just a vibe to attach yourself to. The lyricism isn’t meaty enough to grab onto and the beats are best left for club dancefloors. The band seems to drift further away with “Timothy,” which is pretty stark with a whistle I’m not sure who it’s supposed to appeal to. It’s only when Yukimi Nagano sings “Play your song, ooo to the break of dawn” is where my ears perk up. Maybe the group is setting up listeners for something much more grand, but regardless, it’s only 3 new songs and nothing to really hold onto.
We all know Jon Spencer. But if you don’t, you’ve probably been living under a rock somewhere for over 30 years. A legendary scuzz rocker out of NYC partially responsible for reworking the Blues, tossing in a little funk, all the while keeping that garage-sound aesthetic. Pussy Galore, Blues Explosion, Boss Hog; the list goes on. This time around though, all he has is his own name to fall back on for his proverbial solo debut. Sings The Hits (In The Red Records) doesn’t stray far from the musical stylings we know him for. The album was recorded with Sam Coomes (Quasi, Heatmiser) whose own resumé is probably just as lengthy as Spencer’s. Drums were handled by assistant engineer M. Sord who he’s crossed paths with before, while Bob Bert is handling drums on tour. But let’s talk about the music because that’s what we want to look at here.
It seems Spencer has been reinvigorated here playing more with noise and incorporating it into every track. Whether it’s the dreary feedback of his guitar or the guttural bass end provided here, the energy is unmistakable. The explosiveness of “Do The Trash” is testament to that. Surprisingly enough here is Spencer’s unease with music and “Fake” sounds like an underground rock ‘n roll diss track. Where he sings “Your shit is fake! Your ideas are wrong, lukewarm, washed up & bland / I’m here to warn ya…your shit is soooo fake,” and “Your look is boring and your beats are wack, everything is not working, baby that’s where it’s at.” The rhythm section is mostly what’s playing while Spencer raps/sings, and he & the band plays with dynamics, clearing a path with a pummeling edge. He doesn’t stop there, hitting a frenetic pace on “Beetle Boots,” where he directs his distaste for artistic fashion sense to go along with the lame sound that’s far from staying sharp. When he says, “Stop playing with a butter knife,” we all get it.
There isn’t a lot of time spent on looking at others though because there’s a task at hand, and that’s to drop that dirty wicked sound he has a need to release. “Overload” is consistent, dropping that beat for the head nodders, while “Time 2 Be Bad” gives a little more space, not much, to take a breath through fuzzy bottom ends. But watch out because “Hornet” has an intention to sting and sting hard! Drums have often been cataclysmic alongside his guitar as there’s rarely been a bass involved. All instruments seem to work separately but in unison, blending wildly yet cohesively. Fuck man, Spencer definitely …Sings The Hits here, and then some.