As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, Feb. 13, 2004
January and February are skimpy times for new CD releases. (Actually things slow down drastically in early November after the major companies’ Christmas season release schedule.) So this is a good time to look at some obscure discs that have been in my CD pile for awhile.
* The Soul of John Black. John Black isn’t a person, it’s a group consisting of John Bigham (guitar, vocals) and bassist Christopher Thomas (not to be confused with Chris Thomas King), two musical veterans who, as individuals, have worked with an impressive array of jazz, rock, and rap acts, from Miles Davis to Eminem to Marianne Faithful to Joshua Redman to Everlast to Betty Carter to Fishbone (of which Bigham was a member for eight years).
But the key word in the title is “soul.” This album is a refreshing contemporary take on good old soul music. Sure, it’s got some hip-hop and funk overtones, but like the best of Stevie Wonder or Al Green, the emphasis here is on catchy melodies and honest emotion rather than merely beat and rhythm.
And it does so without sounding retro.
The best songs here are about danger or women. Sometimes the two intersect.
The album starts off with a sparse, slow and menacing tune called “Scandalous (No. 9)” that introduces a narrator who is almost sick with obsessive jealousy (“It ain’t funny what can happen/ when you ain’t around … You got some folks who goin’ to peep/ tryin’ to creep up on yo’ good thing …”
This sets the mood for the next track, “Lost and Paranoid” which is more upbeat and has a fuller band sound with a female backup singer (Jonell Kennedy), a turntable and, yes, even a kazoo, tooted soulfully by Bigham. The lyrics live up to the title, with Bingham fleeing some unknown enemy: “I locked the door/pulled down the shades/ next thing I know the phone’s ringin’/ can’t seem to get away …” The song ends with Bingham repeatingly crying, “please,please, leave me alone!”
The danger becomes more specific in “The Odyssey,” which is the story of a fatal DWI wreck. “The top was down, the air was cool/ The only night was from the moon/ Her body was in flames/ I heard her call my name …”
“Supa Killer” is a Shaft-like latter-day Blaxploitation song that makes a lyrical -- as well a bass-riff -- reference to The Temptations’ “Runaway Child Running Wild.” The true star of this song though is the saxophone of Tracy Wannamae. He should have been used more on this album.
TSOJB isn’t afraid to get pretty. The brooding ballad “Joy” features a Bigham on acoustic guitar.
As vocal talents go, Bigham is no Al Green or Otis Redding. He’s probably closer to Prince -- and that’s not bad. He gets the job done. And most important, he and Thomas have written and performed some fine songs and made an album that never sags.
* Mercedes by Stuurbaard Bakkebaard. O.K. I’ll admit that lately I’ve been a sucker for weird European art rock from non-English-speaking countries. This lo-fi Dutch band certainly fits that bill.
There must be something about smoky, sometimes sinister music with a singer getting excited about things I can’t understand that appeals to me. Some of the lyrics are in English, though I still haven’t figured out what they are about.
Stuurbaard has good tastes in influences. You can hear echoes of Tom Waits, P.J. Harvey’s stranger stuff and maybe even a little Sparklehorse here.
SB can rock sloppy, as they do on the opening song “Clutch” and the mutant blues called “Earl’s Room.”
Some of the most interesting tunes here are the otherworldly acoustic songs that use a stand-up bass (which is bowed on the song “Brown”) and acoustic guitar. “Downfall,“ which features an accordion, sounds like a nightmare in a French café. The title song sounds like a Dutch bosa nova. And “Steel Talk” has a somewhat out-of-tune banjo playing over a clomping drum and a singer who sounds like he’s lived on a strict diet of Residents records.
*Let’s Cool One by The Diplomats of Solid Sound. This is a retro-sounding instrumental group, but no, it’s not surf music. The Diplomats, from landlocked Iowa, are far closer to Booker T. & The MGs than they are to Dick Dale.
Keyboardist Nate “Count” Basinger and guitarist Doug Roberson take turn on leads.
Like the title implies, the sound is basically cool. Close your eyes and you probably can imagine this music to be in the soundtrack of some ’60s action flick (or, depending on your mood, perhaps a porno film)
But somehow I keep waiting for the cool sounds to heat up. There’s a few songs featuring a sax here, and that helps. So I guess my criticism here is the same as with The Soul of John Black: When in doubt, use more sax.
Hear selections from the above CDs on the radio Sunday night on Terrell’s Sound World, 10-p.m to midnight Sunday on KSFR, 90.7 FM, Santa Fe Public Radio. Friday night is Steve Terrell’s Santa Fe Opry, same time, same station. Sorry, KSFR isn't on the web yet. But just you wait ...