Saturday, April 21, 2018

Music Reviews: Nikki Giovanni, Camille Yarbrough, Sarah Shook

Nikki Giovanni
Truth Is On The Way/Like A Ripple On A Pond
Nikki Giovanni is a poet, writer, professor and activist among other things. Her list of awards, works and accomplishments are far too long to list here. I think she's one of the greatest living poets. She was one of the first poets I remember reading. My maternal aunt gave me Giovanni's collection of poems titled Ego Tripping and other poems for young people all those years ago. Giovanni is often described as radical or militant or other such words but I think that those terms are limiting. Her politics and approaches to life have varied over the years, as with anyone else. 

If there is one theme in her work that hasn't varied it is that black people (especially black women) are human and beautiful. In the early seventies as now such a message may be thought of as militant or threatening but I never saw it as such. One thing that was current in the early seventies is that the music produced by black entertainers and musicians wasn't solely concerned with the lowest common denominator of sex and violence. There were actually still some themes of love and sacrifice. It seems like that's been lost in a lot of the music that is popular today but I could be wrong as I don't listen to much pop music. 

Hmm. Anyway, esteemed musicologists can argue over when and where rap begun. Some people confidently point to the late seventies South Bronx. Others will go back further in time and farther afield to Caribbean/Jamaican toasts or West African chants. Others will claim it was all started by spoken word performers/rappers like the Watts Prophets, Last Poets, Wanda Robinson, and Gil Scott Heron. Some will point to scat singers like Eddie Jefferson or Ella Fitzgerald, or rock-n-roll founders like Bo Diddley. Wherever you start the discussion of rap's creation and growth, certainly the spoken word albums that Giovanni created in the early seventies deserve some consideration. 

But aside from that these two albums should be part of your collection if they aren't already. I consider these two albums as one work since they were stylistically virtually identical. I believe there are some release versions that do have everything on one album/cd. Giovanni reads, chants and intones her poems over live classic gospel and blues songs and grooves. IIRC I don't think any of these poems were specifically written for the albums. Giovanni and the musicians apparently worked together to find the best song or groove for the particular poem she was reading. These albums were always repeatedly played at my household during my youth.
Hearing them today brings back positive memories. I love how full and bass heavy the recordings are. There's a lot of bottom in this music, often augmented and occasionally carried by the organist instead of the bassist. The choir has the amount of (natural?) reverb which I have always associated with gospel choirs. I am reminded of all the church services or dinners I attended down South. This music was very much of a piece with the music of people like James Cleveland or the Hawkins family.

These albums also have joy, anger, bitterness, love, frustration, release and every other human emotion imaginable. As mentioned, most of the music accompaniment is classic gospel. Giovanni's poems are so powerful and the choir/musicians so talented that with the possible exception of James Cleveland doing Peace Be Still, I prefer these versions of the gospel pieces to all others. The timing and rhythm is tight. This is real hardcore gospel. I really like the poems "My House" and "Prison Poem". If you don't know gospel you really should. This would be a wonderful place to start. 

Great Pax Whitey/"Peace Be Still"  Conversation/"How I Got Over"

Ego Tripping  Woman Poem/"Amazing Grace"  My House/"To My Father's House"

Prison Poem/"Give It To Jesus"  Alabama Poem/"I've Decided to Make Jesus My Choice"

Nikki Rosa/ "It is Well"   Mothers/"Deep River"  My Tower/"Pretty Little Baby"

Camille Yarbrough
The Iron Pot Cooker
Camille Yarbrough is also a poet and spoken word performer. But whereas Nikki Giovanni had mostly prewritten poems which she spoke over music written by other people, Yarbrough actually wrote all of the lyrics and music on "The Iron Pot Cooker". Additionally she sings as well as doing spoken word. Yarbrough is a dancer, choreographer, author, activist and actress as well. This album grew out of Yarbrough's one woman stage show. The album's title comes from the iron pot which Nigerian female doctors/healers used to carry and cook herbs and healing soups. Yarbrough saw herself as one of the people who would help to heal the African-American community.  The funny thing is I only knew her as a late night radio talk show host. Until very recently I had no idea of her original music and other art.  "The Iron Pot Cooker" didn't really attract attention as a blues album and I doubt you will find many people treating it as such. But it was. 

Yarbrough grew up in Chicago. She was steeped in the blues. This album didn't have a lot of screaming guitar solos but Yarbrough spoke frankly and directly about the issues between men and women or blacks and whites, while using an updated blues/funk format to do so. 

The album's most powerful song is the opener "But It Comes Out Mad" . In this song Yarbrough tries to sympathize with the Black men she knows (relatives, lovers, friends) who are impacted by the vicious racism which she sees coursing throughout the community . But at the same time Yarbrough must resist her jobless husband's desire to make her a verbal or literal punching bag and her own tendency to get caught up in harsh criticism. It's really a biting piece that should make you think about how social ills can impact personal relationships. Unfortunately it's still quite relevant today for people of various backgrounds I think.

Ain't It A Lonely Feeling is both a call to community action and a blessing of forgiveness to negative people. Take Yo Praise is a woman's statement of love to her man. Yarbrough and her band sound a LOT like contemporaneous Roberta Flack on this cut. I like the interplay between the electric guitar and clavinet. I appreciate that the song can be understood on both the erotic and romantic levels. Little Sally The Super Sex Star is a warning about the dangers of turning sex into a commodity. It has a very insistent bass line. All Hid anticipates sellouts and continuing racial reactionaries.  Can I Get A Witness is something that wouldn't sound out of place on a Billy Preston release. As you might expect from the title it is definitely gospel influenced.

Sarah Shook
This is the follow up to Sidelong, which was reviewed earlier here. The music doesn't quite range as far afield sonically as it did on Sidelong. The recording is a little better. Most of the songs are, like many country or blues songs, about how that dirty dog did you wrong. As before, Shook's ex might not necessarily be a man. The biggest difference that I can hear from the previous album is that Shook's voice is much stronger and more confident. I got the feeling that when she warbles during a song it's because she damn well wants to, not because she's missing any note. I think that there was more attention paid to getting the vocal clarity mixed just right. I like that. As with the previous album this is a very personal panorama. There's not a feeling that there's much distance, ironic or otherwise, between Shook and her songs. The listener appreciates that this music is coming out of lived experiences. 

The band has grown a bit as well; the guitarists take more adventurous solos. There's nothing flabby or flaccid in the playing. Although the lyrics are of a piece with the previous album this album steers away from the punk, alternative or rock influences shown on Sidelong. Years is at its core and for that matter everywhere else a country album. If you don't like country and can't stand its rhythms, then this is not for you. If, regardless of genre, you can appreciate solid songwriting and a strong alto voice then you might want to at least check this out. If you are a country music fan and are looking for the raw stuff, for something different than poseurs with cowboy hats, then you should run out and pick this up. My favorite song was "The Bottle Never Lets Me Down". There are some ballads here, most notably the slow song "Heartache in Hell". Listening to "Dammed if I Do, Dammed if I Don't" you might imagine that the band is covering an unreleased Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins tune. My only concern was that rhythmically and stylistically a few of the songs bleed into each other. I would love to hear Shook sing a song or two that wasn't country. But if you've got something that works why mess with it.  There's no sophomore slump here.

New Ways to Fail  The Bottle Never Lets Me Down Good as Gold
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