I owe Javi Terrazas for getting me into Anderson Paak.
Truth be told, Javi is my in for most modern R&B, since I don’t have my finger on the pulse of that world. I heard of Lizzo years before the moment she’s having now, for instance, thanks to Javi. He was singing the praises of Tierra Whack before anyone else I know. And three years ago, Javi urged me to try an album called Malibu by a then-unknown Paak. So I did, and I really enjoyed it.
I think what I like best about Paak is his equal commitment to two musical worlds. At his best – and he is at his best on most of his just-released fourth album, Ventura – he marries hip-hop with old-school soul without succumbing to the temptation to mess with either sound. What we have here is straight out of Motown, horns and strings included, with modern touches confined to their own spaces. The grooves here are so 1960s and 1970s, and the hybrid he generates sounds entirely new without sacrificing any of the vintage feel. (I mean, not many albums can sequence guest spots by Andre 3000 and Smokey Robinson back to back seamlessly.)
Ventura is a looser, airier record than his fussier third, Oxnard, and I like this one quite a bit more. The first four songs here represent one of my favorite opening salvos on any album yet this year – the grooves on “Reachin’ 2 Much” and “Make it Better” are sweet delights. “Yada Yada” takes a Lil’ Stevie Wonder vibe and turns it into a swear-y half-rapped rant, with a quick stop-off to enforce a climate-conscious message. “King James” just kills, dropping its justice-minded verses over a superb funk beat. The hip-hop influences come to the fore during the album’s back half, but Paak never loses his focus on organic, soulful instrumentation.
There isn’t much about Ventura I don’t love. It vies with Malibu as Paak’s best, and hopefully will draw some much-deserved attention. It’s a compact 39:36, and each time when it ends (with the killer horn-driven “What Can We Do”), it leaves me wanting more. That’s always the mark of a good record to me, and of an artist to watch.
* * * * *
Bruce Hornsby has been one of my piano-playing idols since I first heard “The Way it Is,” his ubiquitous hit single from 1986.
As is my way, I’ve followed him since then, while the rest of the world seems to have forgotten him, aside from that one song. If this is you – if, when I said Hornsby’s name, you sang the piano figure to “The Way it Is” in your head – I’m here to tell you that you’ve missed a lot. Hornsby’s musical evolution has been amazing to watch, and as he gave us jazz-pop and electronic folk and jam-band workouts and bluegrass and even straight-up jazz, he grew into one of the musicians I most look forward to hearing from.
His unpredictable career continues with Absolute Zero, his eleventh album (not counting collaborations) and his first without the Noisemakers since 1998. I never know what to expect, but I don’t think I could have predicted what he’s given us this time. This record is downright weird, mixing up a lot of Hornsby’s previous work into a strange goulash of pianos, strings, electronic beats and odd arrangements. Oh, and Justin Vernon is on it, too, much to the surprise of people like me who would never have imagined those two together.
But here they are, trading verses on the meandering “Cast-Off” while Hornsby plays his signature chord voicings and sings about being a discarded chew toy. That’s just one of the strange moments on an album full of them, as Hornsby revels in full creative freedom. Listen to the joy in his playing on the mathematically complex “Fractals.” Just check out “Voyager One,” with its stunning horn and string arrangement courtesy of yMusic. Listen to the dusty weirdness of “Echolocation,” on which Hornsby plays dulcimer.
It took me a few listens to even figure out what Hornsby was trying to do on this record. I’ve found it an enjoyable listen since then, even though it still keeps me at arm’s length here and there. I love the theatrical flurry of “The Blinding Light of Dreams,” though, and have been singing along with the anthemic closer “Take You There” on my last few listens. I like that Absolute Zero is difficult. I like that it’s taking me time to absorb it. It’s further proof that Hornsby is a remarkably creative musician, one willing to take risks no matter the reward.
* * * * *
Speaking of taking risks, here’s Norah Jones.
Jones was originally typecast as a piano-playing singer of jazz standards and soft-focus pop, thanks to the smashing success of her debut album Come Away With Me in 2002. It took her a while to break out of that mold, but ten years later, on an album called Little Broken Hearts, she did. Now she seems to be jumping back and forth between playing it safe and striking out without a net, and I tend to like her riskier material better.
Which is why I am definitely digging Begin Again, her seventh record. Ostensibly a compilation of singles, Begin Again documents seven collaborations with other artists, most of which fall outside Jones’ usual purview. Opener “My Heart is Full” finds her working with Thomas Bartlett, otherwise known as Doveman, on a chant-like piece that floats on an ocean of electronic sounds. The title track reminds me of Hornsby, with its slinky jazz beat courtesy of celebrated drummer Brian Blade.
She co-writes two songs with Jeff Tweedy, one of them featuring his son Spencer on drums, and they’re stark folk pieces. “A Song With No Name” is a lazy ramble, but Jones’ heavily reverbed voice makes it work, and “Wintertime” is a jazzier thing that makes me believe I might like Wilco more with someone else singing. It is “Uh Oh,” her second collaboration with Bartlett, that truly stretches her style, with a breakbeat and lots of dissonant keyboard noises.
Overall Begin Again is another nice departure for Jones, providing new contexts for her gorgeous voice. I hope at some point she takes this ball and runs with it, committing to a more challenging and interesting career. But even if she heads back to standardsville next time, I’ll be there.
* * * * *
I saw someone ask the other day whether the Chemical Brothers had even made music beyond 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole, and if so, why? I hope it’s not news to people reading this that the answers are yes, and because their work has been almost uniformly excellent.
If you don’t include DJ mix record Brothers Gonna Work It Out or their score to Hanna, the just-released No Geography is the ninth Chemical Brothers album. In the 21 years since Dig Your Own Hole Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have taken their beat-heavy style through the realms of psychedelica, produced superb collaborations with Beth Orton and Richard Ashcroft and delivered one mesmerizing electro-rock journey after another. They’ve expanded and refined what they do, sticking with the core of it – big beats and bass lines surrounded by sounds that fold space and time around you.
No Geography finds them doing what they do, which is basically soundtracking late-night drives between galaxies. There aren’t a lot of surprises here, just ten more danceable excursions into other realms. But this doesn’t need to be surprising to be enjoyable, and it is, from first note to last. I’m a big fan of the opening three-part suite that ends with the title track, and of the loping groove of “The Universe Sent Me,” with vocals by someone named Aurora. “We’ve Got to Try” is a soulful anthem, while closer “Catch Me I’m Falling” repurposes Snowbird’s “Bears on My Trail” to wonderful effect.
If you’ve kept up with the Chemical Brothers, the quality of No Geography won’t be a shock. If you haven’t, this is as good a place to start catching up as any. They still ply the same trade, but with nearly 25 years under their belts, they’ve gotten quite a bit better at it. “Block Rockin’ Beats” fans should check it out.
* * * * *
Finally, I owe Chris Prunckle for turning me on to the Yawpers.
A three-piece from Denver, the Yawpers play a wildly energetic form of country-inflected rock, like a punk version of Uncle Tupelo. Chris, who writes and draws a comic strip review column called Wannabe, named the Yawpers’ third album Boy in a Well his favorite of 2017, so I had to check it out. And it’s really good, a conceptual piece about… well, a boy in a well, delivered with undeniable passion.
Their fourth, Human Question, is even better. My lord, this thing rocks. The band comes out swinging on the runaway train that is “Child of Mercy” and rarely lets up. The electric guitars are off the leash here, bursting out of the speakers to light your hair on fire, and the rhythm section propels this along at high speed. When things do calm down a little, it’s like cool water on a hot day. But of course they never calm down for long.
I don’t know if this is the first existential country-punk record, but Human Question tackles themes of suffering and hard-won hope. The title track asks “what can we hold up beneath an empty sky,” and there’s a novel in that one line alone. The absolutely killer “Earn Your Heaven” begins with these lines: “My head is empty, the center cannot hold, I’m studying solitude and I’m the only one enrolled.” These are songs of struggle, both internal and external, and when a quieter song of reliance like “Carry Me” comes along, it earns its grace notes. The record ends with the thoughtful, hopeful “Where the Winters End,” which feels like shaking off a lot of what has come before.
“Thoughtful” is a good word for what the Yawpers do. Their songs are generally simple things, musically, but they have a lot on their minds, so when you’re done being blown backwards by their sheer ferocity, there’s still quite a bit to dig into. I’m still doing that digging, but on first listens the Yawpers have impressed me again. Hear and buy their stuff here.
* * * * *
Next week, more music! Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.