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Album Review: “P R E S S U R E” by Rochelle Jordan

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Released independently as a free download in 2011, Toronto songstress Rochelle Jordan released her debut EP, R O J O – an adventurous, multi-layered joyride showcasing promise and an equal footing in the R&B of the 90s and the future. She makes a clear step forward with her second EP, P R E S S U R E, released digitally in August 2012.

As implied by the title, P R E S S U R E underscores conflict and tension, specifically in romantic relationships. Written entirely by Jordan and intricately produced by PROTOSTAR producer KLSH, the record closes in on a specific vibe, both sonically and vocally. Her influences are obvious – the fluttery coos of Aaliyah and the slick vocal layering of Amerie’s heyday, among others. Yet, Jordan manages to fuse them into a singular style and sound that is uniquely hers throughout the record’s twelve tracks. Meanwhile, KLSH’s minimalist and atmospheric productions are approached completely with swirling synths, pulsing bass lines and menacing, snare-driven drums. This provides ample room for Jordan to explore textures and rhythmic patterns of her detailed and impassioned lyrics.

The first e-single, “Losing”, is a downbeat lament to the sacrifices made in the name of a strained relationship. Equally alluring as it is chilling, it is a tender and deeply intimate moment that very few unsigned artists are willing to display in their early musical offerings. Elsewhere, Jordan aims to please her lover on the frenetic up-tempo title track, reminisces on a past love on “Could’ve Been” and is haunted by that same former love in a new setting on “Somebody”. Elsewhere, her frustrations with insecure and dismissive men are laid out with serious bite and sass on “You Ain’t My Man” and “Too Long”. However, it is on the spare “Shotgun” where Jordan wallows in the beautiful anguish of the end of a relationship, brilliantly winding up with what is the record’s best vocal performance.

Hailing from Toronto, home of fellow artists like Drake and The Weeknd, Rochelle Jordan is a welcome addition to those following independent R&B music and is sure to delight fans with her distinct sound.

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Justify My Love: Music Videos and the Construction of Sexuality

Review: “The Original Jill Scott from the Vault, Vol. 1” by Jill Scott

December 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Typically, a compilation release of unreleased material features unremarkable outtakes and half-finished demos with varied quality compared to that of an official studio record. The opposite proves to be true with The Original Jill Scott from the Vault, Vol. 1 by Jill Scott, the first (of hopefully, several) contractual fulfillment albums following her quiet departure from Hidden Beach Recordings and subsequent signing to Warner Bros. Records. Impressively, the tracks are unfailing and on par with every release in her revered catalog, likely due to her involvement in the song selection process. Unlike her uneven 2011 release The Light of the Sun which featured some formless and even half-baked compositions, The Original Jill Scott… is consistent, with some of the material being recorded as far back as the conception of her first album.

After a brief introduction, Jill flirts coyly on the bombastic and shuffling “I Don’t Know (Gotta Have You)” produced by Carvin & Ivan. In contrast, “Wondering Why (You Don’t Talk to Me)” finds Jill cooing with distress from miscommunication amid a mid-tempo track, complete with a gooey live bass line and background vocals by Wanya Morris of Boyz II Men for some additional color. The funky bounce of “The Light” (produced by Dre & Vidal, who also supply a “piano mix” of the track) and the Southern soul of “Wake Up Baby” both play off of Jill’s impeccable strengths as a versatile lyricist,while the breezy “I’m Prettier” and “Comes to the Light (Everything)” highlight her multi-textured vocals.

Two of the most exciting inclusions are found with “Running Away (Suite)”, a twelve-minute, seemingly free-styled studio jam is complete with adlibs, giggles and hollers from Jill and members of her band, all of whom perform to pleasurable perfection. The other, “Holding On”, is a slow burning torch masterpiece in which Jill mournfully envelops her voice around each instrument as she reminisces about her lover during the wee hours of an early morning.

The Original Jill Scott from the Vault, Vol. 1 may not get the attention it properly deserves from audiences but those who have followed Jill will have their perception of her musicianship and perfectionism enhanced by each of this compilation’s songs and their varying moods.

Review: “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Relatively unknown to the United States at the time, British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse released her second album, Back to Black, in March 2007. As Winehouse was inspired by the girl groups of the 1960s, the album is buoyed by classic jazz and soul with light ska and jazz influences, not unlike the classic Phil Spector wall-of-sound productions that were released during this period. The album was critically applauded and was named a classic must-have only months after the release.

Nostalgia aside, the album was a very focused, modern and current record for music lovers of any major genre to appreciate. Winehouse wrote all of the 11 tracks while the production duties were almost evenly split between famed R&B/Hip-Hop veteran Salaam Remi and British DJ/production wizard Mark Ronson. Both producers take Winehouse to revisit the glory of Motown in its heyday, while still bringing a fresh taste of the current music scene to the fore.

In a similar fashion to her previous album Frank, Back to Black offers an honest account of the complexities of fidelity and pride, the wit of a strong and almost stubborn personality and the miseries of bittersweet love. There is a vivid sexuality and candidness that is strikingly tender and is nothing short of mesmerizing. She croons and sulks, sucks her teeth and scowls, laments and serenades – all while baring her heart on her sleeve.

Lyrically, there is much to take in. Her passionate eye for observing details is wisely documented in her strong songwriting skills. Her knack for producing simple yet effective melodies are can be easily relatable to the listener. For all we know, it could have been a song she wrote about an instance that has happened in any one of our lives.

The brassy “Rehab” is a bold statement in itself. Winehouse cleverly satires the reaction of her closest business partners and family members during an intervention about her escalating alcohol habits (a habit she relies onto and often alludes to in many of the other album tracks). In turn, she defiantly declares her refusal for help, stating that she would rather “be at home with Ray [Charles]” because there is nothing that a rehabilitation center can teach her “that she can’t learn from Mr. [Donny] Hathaway”. A topic not tackled in a conventional pop song in recent memory, the track surprisingly works with its undeniable hook, skittering drums and shuffling keys.

Continuing with the striking tell-it-like-it-is honesty, “You Know I’m No Good”, finds Winehouse confessing to a lover of sleeping with an ex-boyfriend as she had previously predicted that she would before. Her lyrics are seamless and so meticulously delivered from verse to chorus that you are almost set in the eloquent visual vignettes that she maps out musically.

But when she isn’t sarcastically serving her opponent (and herself) with deprecating humor and wit, Winehouse spends much of the album analyzing her more pressing matters in her personal relationships with men.

The emotional centerpiece of the album is in the three middle songs. She states the running theme of the album on “Love Is a Losing Game” – a somber ode to the finality of a failed relationship. The sweeping and swelling strings are complimented with Winehouse’s naked vocal delivery and phrasing that channels the late DinahWashington. “Over futile odds and laughed at by the Gods…and now the final frame – love is a losing game,” she sings with a tender sincerity that pierces through to the very core of the listener. Contrasting this is the upbeat “Tears Dry on Their Own” which reprises a sublime “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” loop as a backdrop for Winehouse to specify her declaration of optimism, despite going over the numerous reasons why a particular relationship floundered. Though she admits “we never had it all, we had to hit a wall,” the song essentially finds Winehouse looking to days ahead with a sense of hope. The tempo slows with “Wake Up Alone” which dissects and details hitting the emotional low of attempting getting on during a typical day and night without having her loneliness consume her. “This face in my dreams seizes my guts, he floods me with dread. Soaked in soul, he swims in my eyes by the bed. Pour myself over him, the moon spilling in…and I wake up alone.” It is one of the chilling and darkest moments in the course of the entire album.

The most hope in Back to Black lies in the final two tracks, “Some Unholy War” and “He Can Only Hold Her”. The former is a mellow, late night assertion to her partner of undying love. Her dark vocal tones tumble like dice upon the moody ballad’s guitar licks, giving a new shade to the album’s atmosphere. The latter switches her role from first person to third, Winehouse seems objective when the “I’s” become she’s and the “you’s” become “he’s” as she speaks about a couple’s standstill. Possibly critiquing her own situation, the man is frustrated by the woman’s insecurities from a past relationship – “Now, how can he have her heart when it got stole? Though he tries to pacify her, what’s inside her never dies.” Laid against an uplifting, glitteringand melodious accompaniment, it is the album’s shining moment.

What made Back to Black such a masterpiece among music lovers and an experience among casual listeners was the honest look at the downside of love. If you take a comparative look at the songs on popular record, there is nothing that matches or captures the sheer genius of the record, stylistically, lyrically and/or musically speaking. Several critics lauded the blended styles of music into one piece that fans of different genres could appreciate singularly. Many other critics praised the creativity, the well-juxtaposed sense of humor and self to bare honesty in the lyrics that told stories and made people think about their own lives.

(written during the summer of 2008)

The British Female Invasion: A Review of Marsha Ambrosius and Adele

October 26, 2011 Leave a comment

While Amy Winehouse preps for a long-awaited release (hopefully within the year, Duffy on a hiatus and Lily Allen all but retiring from music, two established females from England return to the fore to produce some of 2011’s best moments in R&B and Soul music.

When Marsha Ambrosius (from Liverpool, England) embarked in a solo career in 2007, she began building her foundation as a songwriter/producer through her lauded mixtapes (save for the horrid Neo Soul is Dead) that expanded on the initial sound she captured with Floetry. She landed a production deal with Dr. Dre and his Aftermath Entertainment imprint and wrote/produced and sometimes appeared on tracks for major artists like Jamie Foxx, Fabolous and Alicia Keys. Her solo debut album, Late Nights and Early Mornings, is an intimate, silky, honest set of songs that explore different angles in romantic relationships. The buzz single “Hope She Cheats (On You With a Basketball Player)” is a brash kiss-off to a man her bruised her ego after a bitter break-up.

Ambrosius shows her versatility, self-penning and producing more than half of the album on her own – the best being “I Want You to Stay”, the second written track intended to be recorded by the late Michael Jackson. The other highlight is the unexpected cover of the downtempo gem “Sour Times” by trip-hop group Portishead. Production is also supplied by Just Blaze (the first official single, “Far Away”, accompanied by a a video in response to the recent string of suicides within the gay community), Dre&Vidal (the tearfully bare “Your Hands”) and up-and-coming producer Canei Finch (a swelling cover of the Lauryn Hill cover “Lose Myself”).

With the buzz that preceded the album and it’s numerous pushbacks, the expectation was fulfilled with the album debuting at #2 on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart.

But while Marsha Ambrosius is exploring the joys of make-up sex with her lover on her debut album, singer-songwriter Adele dives deep into another crippling break-up while absorbing some of the responsibility on her sophomore album.

Adele Adkins (from Tottenham, London, England) was signed to XL Records after her three-song demo was lauded and circulated all over MySpace. In 2008, her first record (titled after the relationship/break-up she experienced at that age) was a contemporary set of songs that fused jazz, soul and folk into a blend that complimented her already personal songs and brassy vocals. The album was an unexpected success in many markets, most surprisingly in the United States.

But her second album goes a step further. While the recurring theme on 19 was pointing the finger in the aftermath of a breakup, 21 explores the progression of accepting responsibility and coming to terms with another broken relationship.

She explodes on the foot-stomping “Rolling in the Deep”, a heavy -knocking blues/gospel/rock hybrid which finds her barreling and growling at an errant ex-lover, as if she were provoked for the final time. She raises an eyebrow while channeling rock-and-roll/soul singers more than twice her age on the equally thumping “Rumour Has It”. But when the tempos descend, Adele truly shines. “Turning Tables” and “Someone Like You” are the most affecting and stirring tracks on the album – capturing the feeling of helplessness from heartbreak and remembering a lover who has moved on to another on both tracks, respectively. Almost every track on the album encapsulates the natural emotions during a break-up – pain, regret, sadness, anger and betrayal, all with a sense of finesse, class and strength.

The progression of the album’s production and composition (sometimes rich and high-gloss and other times, acoustic and stripped) could be credited to Adele’s willingness to open up to her collaborators. On this stronger set of songs, she co-writes her material with the likes of OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, Briish producer Fraser T. Smith, musician Dan Wilson and the legendary knob-twiddler Rick Rubin, among a few others. Rick Rubin’s contributions, like always, are proved to be the most significant, especially on the tender bossa-nova rendition of The Cure’s “Lovesong”. Using an arrangement that was intended for Barbra Streisand, the track is most likely to be a mainstay at wedding receptions, coffee shops and everything in between.

While 19 was bogged down by too many of the same colors blending together over the course of the record (folky guitars, similar tempos and lyrical circles), Adele has pilled on the dramatic production on 21, toughened her Dusty Springfield-esque tone and lyrical flourishes to produce an essential soundtrack for the heartbroken.

(written in March 2011 for The Arrowhead at San Bernardino Valley College in San Bernardino, California)