New Music: Friday Roll Out! Julien Baker, Elijah Wolf, Adrian Younge, Menahan Street Band, Nineteen Thirteen

I’m listening. I’m trying to focus here and understand. Did I mention I did and still do listen to 90s rock, and yes, I’ve been to some of those much harder-edged mainstream shows and have been ravaged in crowds, bruised & bloodied. I can only assume the members of Nineteen Thirteen have been through the same trenches because the group’s MCMXIII 4-song E.P. is filled with similarities. Comparisons are cheap and sarcasm is the poor man’s wit, but I’m broke AF and completely out of much patience. While songs here could have landed the band a serious record deal way back when, the band is playing within a genre that’s almost all but forgotten. The classic rock stations still pump it out though. That’s not to say the band doesn’t hold any validity. The band’s “Cripple John” caused a bit of confusion on my part, thinking about Cripple Jim of Cop Shoot Cop/Red Expendables. No, they sing about a different Cripple here though a rolling bassline, loud guitars, and crunching rhythms aren’t without merit. It still fits within the parameters I’ve set there but I can get down with this one.  

It shouldn’t come to anyone as a surprise that Little Oblivions (Matador Records) is possibly Julien Baker’s most realized work to date! There’s nary a negative word spoken regarding Baker, musical or otherwise, but instead, the praise she receives is well-deserved. On the new release, Baker shows all sides, whether it’s taking her songs through the wringer and here we find the singer-songwriter with much more directness, allowing her lyrics to flow usually through aggressive, yet melodic, backdrops. There’s no doubt, Baker can rock out, and we’ve heard her delicate guitar & vocals in the past, but we do get that here as well (“Crying Wolf”) albeit led by keyboards instead of guitar. You understand, although her vocal delivery is growing with every subsequent release. There’s much more of an extensive range and with this song alone, through the build-up, she knows when to pull back and give her all. The harmonies in the background are not of this world, hauntingly angelic. There are moments where Baker lets the momentum take hold (“Ringside”) and when she sings “Jesus can you help me now?” I want to scream “YES!” because everyone needs to hear this as the band all moves as one musical beast! There’s no mistaking things here, Baker sets the record straight with her music; she is one of the greatest songwriters of her generation. Based on Baker’s music that isn’t hyperbole, it’s fact.

Moments arise when I’m not sure if I’m familiar with an artist or not. Have I heard the music before? I’m sure I have. Did I confuse the artist with someone else? Most likely. Occasionally names are interchangeable and sometimes, so is the music. It just seems to happen that way and there’s nothing I can do about that really.

I’ve heard songs by Elijah Wolf in the past, but I don’t believe I’ve listened to an album in its entirety. It happens, usually through no fault of my own. But enough of my shortcomings, this is about Wolf after all. His new album Brighter Lighting (Trash Casual) begins innocently enough with “I Find Light” which leads to the eventual discovery – after countless spins – that there’s so much going on within track itself. Before I get too far ahead of myself, we need to understand the recording and musicianship of the release. The album was produced by Sam Cohen who is a multi-instrumentalist himself and has produced Top 40 artists and has released music himself (Apollo Sunshine, Yellowbirds). Guitarist Nels Cline is also featured on the album. Now back to the opener: “I Find Light” is filled with an array of percussive instruments which effectually adds to the starkness of Wolf’s vocal delivery. Instruments seem to build around his voice and the overdubbed harmonies are intriguing, as are the variety of keyboards utilized. It’s strange but alluring.

Wolf is actually quite captivating with his laid back delivery as the instruments continuously crash around him, although on “Where I Wanna Be” the instruments wash over rather than slam with harsh waves. They intricately wrap around the melody and the build up is infectious. While Wolf’s folk sensibilities are clear, his identity is completely his own. Although, there are moments where we find ghosts of others. On the title track, there’s a passing similarity to the  Lennon but it’s a combination of the piano notes hitting and his overdubbed vocals. This isn’t a slight, it’s a compliment. The harmonies just add to the fantastic journey. For some reason it lingers on “What Does It Mean To You” on this guitar driven track. The notes he drags out, as the harmonies bleed through, yes, that could be it right there. The closing “Let Me Go” doesn’t need much, just the acoustic finger picking as the rhythm section soon joins in and is surrounded by harmonies and what sounds like wind instruments breathing in and out.

Brighter Lighting is easily one of the sweetest albums so far this year. The free-flowing ease within is captivating. Elijah Wolf doesn’t have to beat you over the head with forced notes and beats, he can shrug and let the songs deliver the feel of brisk spring days – better days – to come. Wolf makes it look so easy but we all know it’s not.

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There are certain things I avoid, whether it’s people, food, or neighborhoods, I tend to keep my distance. Sometimes it may be because they stir up emotions within me that I’m just not ready to deal with and it’s never the right time. That’s what I keep telling myself. This happens often and it seems to be my crutch to bear.

Menahan Street Band has a new album in The Exciting Sounds Of (Daptone Records) and I’ve put off Menahan but I always return to it. With the band comes memories of Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley and it’s a hard pill to swallow but the group’s new release doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. For the indoctrinated, Menahan features members from Antibalas, Dap Kings, and Budos Band. The band’s third album gives a clear understanding as to why instrumental music is continually viable.

The music throughout this release isn’t overpowering yet compelling. The band, led by guitarist Thomas Brenneck, understand its own complexities of allowing each instrument the space it requires in order to deliver well thought-out compositions. The band’s soulful delivery on “Midnight Morning” combines standard guitar-bass-drums instrumentation along with organs layered underneath as horns take center stage. The space allowed between instruments play a key role, lending to moments where the band punches powerfully without becoming overbearing. There are softer sides to the group’s music, dare I say much like Isaac Hayes drawing out a track, like on “Rainy Day Lady.” The ghost of soulful forefathers are in attendance, creating a starkness where piano notes shimmer each time they’re tapped on.

From track to track, the band never repeats itself as it searches for the perfect notes to piece together, and they find it on “Cabin Fever.” This one is a surprise, reminiscent of late 70s Blaxploitation films, opening with a screeching keyboard note as the band revolves around, capturing its essence and accentuating it. The rhythm section is on its perpetual path with horns marching in and out. It’s followed by the sadness of “Rising Dawn,” almost dictating that good things must come to an end. Walking directly into the morning sun we don’t want the evening to end though, as the rain seals it all. But then “Snow Day” creates an alluring idea that begins with an acoustic guitar and other instruments seem to fall right into place alongside it. First comes quietly thundering bass & drums, followed by and organ before horns drift all over the track. Can it be so easy for the Menahan Street Band? Seems so.

We get a taste as to why the band’s music has been sampled by rappers (Jay Z, Kendrick, Cudi) throughout the years. We’re sure to find the minute and a half “Parlor Trick” sampled on someone’s album. The repetitive horns are bound to attract an attacking array of emcees, as is “The Duke,” a stylized number where the band allows the funk to permeate to the surface. Guitars challenge horns as we’re hit with a quick bass solo. But there’s nothing quite like the “Devil’s Respite,” a track that almost has one feeling sorrowful but cuts the song with glimmers of hope.

It’s no easy feat what Menahan Street Band accomplishes here. There’s so much soul within the band’s funky sound it’s almost difficult to wrap one’s own head around it. But The Exciting Sounds Of should be prerequisite listening for many, if not all.

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“Why does it always have to be about race? Music should be about bringing people together. Everyone always needs to make the correlation between politics and music, bringing it closely together regarding racism.” These are some of and points individuals have made through the conversations I’ve had. There are people all across this country that either turn a blind eye, have never had to deal with, or have ever felt the burden of one’s deeper pigmentation.

For those that are unfamiliar with Adrian Younge, now might be a great opportunity to familiarize yourself with his music. His resume as a composer, arranger, and music producer reads like a cavalcade of artistry, scoring films and tv series like Black Dynamite and Marvel’s Luke Cage (along with Ali Shaheed Muhammad), to working with an array of artists like Ghostface Killah, Kendrick Lamar, and others. There’s also The Midnight Hour, his band with Ali Shaheed Muhammad which defies boundaries. One would wonder if there are any mountains left for Younge to climb. And then he delivers The American Negro (Jazz Is Dead), a 26-track opus that’s remarkably original piecing together spoken word, politically charged statements, and Younge’s soulful compositions throughout this release. It isn’t out of place to say something of this nature hasn’t been done within the past couple of decades at least, aside from possibly Kendrick Lamar but that’s another genre altogether.

Tracks filtering through here are intelligently captured, and Adrian Younge challenges listeners with the Black experience, breaking down systemic racism without having to say, “systemic racism.” Younge is normally brief with his statements he’s included here in between tracks. They’re poignant and should be effective with hopes of reaching a younger audience. But also sown within the musical fabric are his soulful compositions, with sturdy bottom ends accentuated with strings, piano, guitars, and percussion that carries the weight of black culture. Noticeable are names of some of these delicately beautiful tracks, like “James Mincey Jr.” who was a 16 year old murdered in a police chokehold in L.A. horns slowly creep around the track as the keyboards direct us all with sirens blaring in the distance. The chimes align with piano as I struggle with knowing who Mincey is. A victim in the 80s on the west coast, much like Amadou Diallo was on the east. It’s a beautiful ode to the young man. The juxtaposition of “Margaret Garner” shouldn’t be missed. It’s an upbeat track that will make listeners bounce in their seat with lyrics like “My black baby/dark and lovely/your skin divine/God has made you shine,” but knowing the story of the once enslaved Garner might have you trembling through her deeds.

The American Negro isn’t just to entertain, it’s also here to make listeners think! There’s so much offered here with history, struggle, and pain. Adrian Younge captures it all, and through music, giving everyone something to think long and hard about.

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