Friday, 26 August 2011

Album review: Section .80 - Kendrick Lamar (Top Dawg)

Forget East and West Coast, its the South that has ruled hip hop in recent years. Meanwhile, over in Cali Dre has been working on his latest album for what seems a lifetime while Snoop is verging on being a nostalgia act with his live performances of Doggystyle for the masses. How refreshing it is then to discover a fresh new talent coming out of the US's most famous state.

Kendrick Lamar is a 24 year old Compton resident and like the Pharcyde or Tribe Called Quest before him he is happy to turn to jazz for his samples. However, rather than creating some 'golden age' hippy vibes his subject matter can be fairly harsh.

This is actually his third album. I'll put my hands up and say that I haven't heard the first two, however I might well be seeking them out having listened to Section .80. Its a very good record with intelligent rapping and interesting subject matter while being light touch so that things don't get ground down in some post millennial angst (see Tyler the Creator or Roc Marciano for just two who have fallen into this trap recently).

Its a shame that one of the weakest moments comes so early in the record ' I call a bitch a bitch, a ho a ho' Lamar claims in the tasteless Hol Up - a tale of sexually assaulting an air stewardess on a plane. Its a poor reflection on a man that clearly knows better. No Make Up is much more female friendly and showcases his skills as a rapper much better - it has a slight RandB feel with its sped up vocal and layering techniques. This lightness of touch is also captured in the skit-ish Chapter 6 which immediately brings to mind the palm trees of Venice Beach.

Kendrick isn't afraid to get political. Ronald Reagan Era is just one example of acute political sensitivity while Keisha's Song is the emotional heart of the record with its lyrics about a sexual abuse. Lamar highlights the crack riddled streets that exist in modern America without feeling the need to boast about his own masculinity. Throughout the rapping is superb and Lamar is an MC with real personality in his voice (think the first time you heard Quasimoto or Q-Tip - it was just 'different') Rigamortis is a brilliant showcase for his freestyle rapping over the jazzy melody and is  most impressive.

Admittedly at 16 tracks the album is a little too long but this is quality West Coast hip hop without the Ghetto posturing. Its gritty and urban but in the way The Wire was - with an underlying feel of reality and intelligence. This is not a perfect record but it highlights a major talent, which if channelled properly could create more great work.  

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Live review: The Green Man Festival, Crickhowell, Breacon Beacons

My festival of choice was pretty much made for me this year. Glastonbury sold out quickly and Bestival clashed with my son's starting school (oh to be growing up...) V and Reading are for people 20 years younger and the Big Chill clashed with something else so a return to the Green Man it was...

The Green Man has well established itself in the festival calendar in recent years with its niche as the subversive folk festival. Yes, you'll catch the latest alt-country act or folkie troubadour but you'll also find dance music or funk too if you want to dance through the night. I went for the first time two years ago and was struck by its friendly vibe, attention to detail and high quality music control.

This year we left home earlish Friday morning to a soundtrack of Wooden Shjips, Bigstar and Neil Young - its an hour and a half from Gloucestershire - just far enough to feel like an adventure. The parking was easy enough and we walked through the campsites to get a good pitch - the site is stunning with the imposing Brecon Beacons providing the backdrop to the main stage. As we make our way through the site one is transfixed by the huge array of quality food options - no greasy burgers here but plenty of North African Borek, Roast dinners or the near legendary Cornish fish goan curry. The bars too are of the highest quality with an array of wonderful local ales and ciders being consumed with enthusiasm by the marauding hoards.

We start by making our way to the intimate Chai Wallah's tent which is an excellent vantage point from which to begin our adventure. The first act we see are fairly typical of what you can expect in Chai Wallah's - a group of young lads who look like Hanson but sound like authentic Jamaican reggae. Four men dressed as old ladies raise their inflatable zimmer frames with joy...We stick around for the Alternative Dubstep Orchestra who do exactly what it says on the tin with massive sub bass interplaying with jubilant brass - not unlike some of Masssive Attack's more dubby material.

Its to the main stage though and Bellowhead who usher in the festival proper. I was very sceptical given their supposed feel good 'cross-over' folk and I'm not sure I could stomach a whole record but for this time and place they are perfect with a jubilant set of orchestrated sea shanties interspersed with everything from funk to disco - terrific fun. It's then over to the Far Out stage for Pilooski, 2 Bears and Horse Meat Disco. Two Bears in particular rip things up with Pseudo Echo's Funky town and invitations for everyone to 'do the bearhug' - a tent full of inebriated punters are only too happy to oblige.

Saturday morning gives the opportunity to explore the site again. Off the main stages there are small but enjoyable pleasures to be had - buy a machete perhaps from Friends of the Earth, or spot a New Orleans Voodoo Man complete with pinkie rings on the way to the toilet. Again we make our way to Chai Wallahs - the funky heart of the festival - which is hosting some gentle folk from the heart of London's Broadway Market. I head off to see Josh T Pearson being interviewed and get to ask a question. 'What do you think of the state of America today?' this correspondent asks. 'Um, uh, I don't know really, I've lived in Paris for the last two years' doesn't really give much insight. We later catch the bearded troubadour in the Far Out tent, his electric guitar distorting over his oak soaked voice.

Early evening and its back to Chai Wallah's for an extraordinary performance from New Yorkan Joe Driscoll, essentially a one man soundsystem who highlights the overall ethos of folk spliced genres. Folky Hip Hop anyone? A steel guitar version of I Want You Back over a funky breakbeat lifts everybody before Joe calls in his friends from other bands who have played the tent earlier in the day. A fiddle rendition of Can I Kick It is interspersed with reggae toasting and mass hysteria. We take some time out, chilling to Destroyer - an ever so slightly psychedelic take on Hall and Oates but there is only one band to see tonight and that is Fleet Foxes. The main stage is rammed and the Foxes prove worthy headline material with their west coast harmonies bringing everyone together under a cracked moon in peace and love. The second album tracks are OK but its the oldies that hit home the hardest. By the end of the set tiredness has begun to set in and I resist the temptation of Warp DJs to get some much needed sleep.

Sunday starts with blazing sunshine, fully exposing the beautiful backdrop. I fill a flask with Tequila, orange and lime and head into the main arena for some sunbathing. James Blake might seem like an odd choice for the Green Man and especially on the main stage in daylight. Many are underwhelmed by his operatic vocals and slow leftfield beats but I thoroughly enjoy the dub spliced sounds. Limit To Your Love is accompanied by enormous sub bass which rattles the ribcage. Its Laura Marling though that most people in the main arena have waited to see. She really is a precocious talent with her husky voice and bitter but tuneful songs making perfect sense as the sun begins to dip. Three albums in and she already has a strong body of work.

We take some time out to a minimal (and dare I say boring?) Low Anthem before choosing Gruff Rhys over Iron and Wine. The eccentric Welshman's delayed set is predictably fun with his gorgeous melodies bringing everyone together in applause. Ending the set with a 15 minute song might sound like commercial suicide to some but Gruff brings so much humour out that its a joy.We spill out of the tent to watch the Green Man himself go up in flames accompanied by fireworks - a magical end to a magical festival. Andy Weatherall brings it all home with a funky dance set but by then I'm on my way back to my tent.

The weather was wonderful, the food and drink a real treat and the music (despite looking a little bit weak on paper) perfectly complemented the mood of everyone on site. The Green Man has something special - it doesn't feel part of the mainstream at all but a lovingly crafted fun fair for those who understand that music, nature, peace and love have all the answers. I for one will be back next year.

Friday, 12 August 2011

The 10 greatest protest songs

We are constantly told that the protest song is dead. Certainly, in recent years there has been a dearth of openly political content in popular music but student demonstrators recently found solace in Lethal Bizzle, only two years ago Rage Against the Machine were the Christmas number one while Arcade Fire’s tunes are full of implied criticism of Government so I don't think it’s the death knell of protest just yet.

Having said that, the heyday of protest was undoubtedly in the 1960s and 1970s as various minority groups asserted themselves and this was reflected in the music. Just a quick word on scope - I've included only songs that protest rather than those that reflect a particularly miserable time - hence no Ghost Town and no Shipbuilding. Also, I've eliminated numbers which simply express pride in a particular identity rather than protest e.g. Spasticus Autisticus by Ian Dury or Respect by Aretha Franklin. Anyway, here are 10 of the very best songs of anger- if you disagree leave your choices below the article...For more excellent commentary on protest songs check out the recently published 33 Revolutions per minute by Dorian Lynskey.

10. Harrowdown Hill - Thom Yorke (2006)

"We Think The Same Thing At The Same Time, We Just Can't Do Anything About It, We Think The Same Thing At The Same Time, There Are So Many Of Us That You Can't Count"

One of the few musical commentaries on the New Labour years. While Noel Gallagher was off to meet Blair at Downing Street, Thom Yorke was writing this tune about the pressure put on Government Scientist Dr David Kelly during the run up to the Gulf War and his subsequent suicide. A commentary on the force of power over evidence…chilling

9. Killing in the name of - Rage Against The Machine (1992)

'Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses'

An anti-establishment diatribe, but perhaps even more importantly the defeater of Simon Cowell inspired pop when it went head to head with X-Factor winner Joe McCedderly for Christmas number one. It unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve in its anger, suggesting that members of the US police force are members of the Ku Klux Klan and featuring 17 fucks - a call to arms for teenagers everywhere.

8. Fight The Power - Public Enemy (1989)

Public Enemy's whole career was essentially a collection of protest songs but this is probably the one that best articulates their anti-establishment credentials. Famously used in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, it begins with a vocal sample of civil rights activist Thomas "TNT" Todd 'Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact, it's safe to say that they would rather switch than fight.' The whole track is a proud reflection of Afro-American culture and was voted the greatest hip hop song of all time on VH1.

7. Masters Of War - Bob Dylan (1963)

Supposedly a protest singer, Dylan has repeatedly denounced the label, but this is one of a few of his tracks that undoubtedly carry a protest message (The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll is undoubtedly another).Taken from the traditional Nottamun Town and as relevant today as it was then - rich men build arms and send younger, poorer men to their deaths. Dylan's anger is clear as he wishes death on the protagonists and promises to watch their funeral caskets when they die. Ouch…how did he go from this to advertising Victoria's Secret?!

6. War - Edwin Starr (1970)

'War…what is it good for…absolutely nothin'

Has any line got across so important a message so simply? Probably not. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong it was originally recorded by the Temptations before Starr made it a hit reaching the US number one for three weeks.

5. Zombie - Fela Kuti (1977)

If there is anyone in the world of music who was really a revolutionary, it might well be Fela Kuti. He verbally attacked his own Government on numerous occasions, Zombie being just one example (a commentary on what he saw as a mindless military). In return they killed his mother and destroyed his compound. He responded in return by delivering his mother's coffin to the army barracks and writing Coffin for Head of State. Brilliantly angry and dancy and how many songs can you say that about?

4. Ohio - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1970)

Written by Neil Young and a proper 60's counterculture classic. This tells the story of the killing of 4 students at Kent State University by the police following an anti war march. Its long drawn out story - the misery and sadness reflected in the music. 'Tin soldiers and Nixon coming' left the listener in no doubt who's side the band were on and who was ultimately responsible….

3. Burnin and Lootin - Bob Marley (1973)/Police and Thieves - Junior Murvin (1976)
Impossible to separate these two as they are very similar in feel and delivery. Both reflect the difficulties of the Caribbean communities in the 1970s in Jamaica and London but feel strangely fitting at the current time. Burnin and Lootin was used in the opening credits of French cult Classic La Haine while Police and Thieves sound tracked the Notting Hill Carnival Riots and was covered by the Clash.

2. A change is gonna come - Sam Cooke (1964)

Famously adopted by Barack Obama during his election campaign, this Cooke number saw his move from writing love songs to explore a much deeper seam in relation to the civil rights movement and he used gospel, soul and blues to tell his tale. Other tracks (notably Don't Call Me Niger Whitey by Sly Stone) also touched upon racial injustice but this one did it with real class. Cooke claimed he wrote it off the back of hearing Dylan's Blowing In The Wind….
1. Strange Fruit - Billie Holliday (1939)

"Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze."

Subtlety is something sadly lacking from most protest songs but this example shows that you don't need to be sloganeering or shouting to get your point across. Written by communist Abel Meeropol, it tells in vivid terms the lynching of black men in America's deep south and was perhaps the first real attempt to tell the story of injustice in contemporary song.Holiday was regularly prevented from playing it in her live shows. Some have argued that the song was instrumental in America's black population's articulation of the struggles they faced which would culminate in the civil rights movement years later. Deeply powerful.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Live review: Pentangle, Royal Festival Hall, London 1st August 2011

Hot town, summer in the city. A steamy August night and the twenty-somethings of London town sit sipping lager gloating on the roof terrace of the Royal Festival Hall enjoying their place at the centre of the universe...

Inside its a slightly more refined affair as acid fold legends Pentangle reunite for one of just three gigs (the others being the Cambridge folk and Glastonbury festivals). Fitting indeed that they choose the Royal Festival Hall given their recording of some of the album Sweet Child in this very place. The audience is less male and less beardy than you might imagine. True, there aren't many teenagers hanging around, but there is a fair smattering of all ages 30 up and the ladies are out in force too, showing the wide appeal of the recent folk revival

Things start in a fairly subdued fashion before the original line up of Bert Jansch (guitar), Danny Thompson (double bass), Terry Cox (drums), John Renbourn (guitar) and Jacqui McShee (vocals) play their 'only hit' Light Flight second song in. Its a little ramshackle to be honest but there is no doubting the quality of McShee's vocal as the second half of the song is carried by her famously ethereal wail. This begins a sublime run of material through to the interval. Mirage is the next song with the band's jazz influences coming to the fore before The Hunting Song takes things to another level again with Jacqui's exquisite voice providing the gel to bring together the disparate sounds.

Mainstream it isn't - there are few gigs for example where the mere entrance of a sitar or a bango generates warm applause. The audience is worshiping at the alter of funky folk and is sympathetic to the odd strained note here and there. Part one ends with the haunting Cruel Sister and one can't help but be impressed with the overall shape of the show - this is a band, whilst trading on past successes, that retains a spirit and sound worthy of their legacy.

Sadly the second half of the show doesn't quite match the first. The band re-emerge to play a series of blues jams which, while displaying the diversity of their influences, struggle to hold the attention - especially when Jacqui is offstage. The double bass solos in particular lack variety, pared back to single notes and we are slowly battered into submission by soporiphic soloing. Terry Cox's drum work with its jazz shuffle is better but its only when McShee re-emerges and promises us more tales 'of doom and gloom' that things pick up again. The Wedding Dress Song (learnt we are told from Peggy Seeger) is a rare moment of joy as Anderson plays his bass with a bow. As things wrap up with Pentangling the audience shows its appreciation to the extent that the band return for a brief encore of Rain and Snow bathed in red and yellow light.

Few can doubt Pentangle's influence in the world of English roots music. At their heart is a commitment to authenticity and experimentation and in Jacqui McShee they have one of the great voices of any genre. The rest of the ensemble are no slouches either despite their age. They deserve the late acclaim they are receiving for their continued commitment to music of depth and beauty.