In Before the Buzzer
Three Records That Defined December

If you keep track of a number of online reviewers, you’ve probably noticed that I’m usually the last to weigh in on pretty much anything.

The main reason for this is that I like to take my time with music. I usually have strong opinions right away upon first listen, but as often as not those opinions will change with repeated dives through. I maintain that you can tell when I’ve spent the amount of time I want to on something, which is usually a minimum of three listens. This column’s weekly format allows me to do this – I’ve already heard everything I’m reviewing next week, and my job now is to deepen those impressions and come up with cogent criticism. It’s a slower process than I’d like, and certainly slower than our culture of immediacy usually demands.

In keeping with all that, I’m usually the last online critic to post a top 10 list at the end of every year. In fact, I’ve usually read most of the big ones before I start writing mine. This is also about my process, but for a slightly different reason – I don’t want to miss anything. Last year, most of the major lists were out by the first week of December, discounting anything that might come out in the last few weeks of the year. I try to make sure I’ve heard everything a year has to offer before I rank my favorites. It only seems fair.

Now, granted, there’s usually very little risk. Very few important albums are released in the final quarter of the year, and December is ordinarily a no-man’s land. It’s usually safe to just go for it. But last year, something happened that strongly reinforced my decision to wait until the last possible moment, and that something was called Black Messiah.

D’Angelo’s third album came out of nowhere. His last record, the incredible Voodoo, almost predates this column – it was issued in January of 2000, and my copy is an advance promo that I picked up at Face Magazine, my first job out of college. That feels like a lifetime ago to me, so I can only imagine what it feels like to D’Angelo, who has been working on Black Messiah since 2002. In a time when every comeback imaginable is happening before our ears, D’Angelo’s is perhaps the most surprising.

And doubly so given how he chose to release Black Messiah. He confirmed the album’s existence on Dec. 12, sharing first single “Sugah Daddy,” and three days later made it available on iTunes and other digital retailers. In three days, we went from “holy crap, there’s really a new D’Angelo album” to “holy crap, I’m listening to the new D’Angelo album.” It was an incredible testament to our brave new world, especially since D’Angelo reportedly finished the record mere weeks before releasing it. And it clearly threw critics into a tizzy, particularly those who had already declared 10 other records the best of the year.

Because make no mistake, Black Messiah is one of the very best albums of 2014. I knew it when I first heard it, but it’s taken multiple listens over the past few weeks to fully grasp how good it is. Frankly, this is not an immediate record – D’Angelo surprise-released a complex and layered piece of work that takes time to unravel, and in so doing he all but demanded immediate reactions to it. While my first impression was certainly favorable, I’m glad I’ve taken as much time as I have with it. And I expect to take much more time with it in the years to come.

While Black Messiah certainly is the follow-up to Voodoo, it’s very different. Voodoo was a tour de force, and for my money, there hasn’t been an R&B album to rival it since its release. If Black Messiah were consciously trying to match it, there’s no evidence – this new record is looser, weirder and oddly more confident. It’s the kind of record that can only be made after a masterpiece, a record with absolutely nothing to prove. Whether that’s the case or not, D’Angelo certainly sounds like he was completely free on this album to do whatever he wanted.

And what he wanted to do was to go fully analog. Black Messiah is credited to D’Angelo and the Vanguard, and the live band, which includes Questlove on drums and Pino Palladino on bass, gives the whole thing an organic, jammy feel. On first listen, some of these songs can seem like little more than improvised grooves, and it takes time to hear how intricately, how meticulously it is all arranged. Where most modern R&B sounds canned and programmed, Black Messiah sounds marvelously alive.

And where Voodoo was practically a non-stop sex jam, Black Messiah turns its attentions to social issues on several key tracks. In many ways, this is D’Angelo’s What’s Going On, a funky soul record that casts an eye on the state of the world. (The rush release, D’Angelo has said, was in response to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri – he had originally planned to issue it later this year.) Race relations are specifically addressed in “The Charade”: “All we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk, feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked, revealing at the end of the day, the charade…” The bizarre “1000 Deaths,” confidently placed up front on the record, matches lyrics about the horrors of war with a dense, percussive soundscape.

The extraordinary “Till It’s Done,” dedicated to Bishop Desmond Tutu, takes stock of the world: “Clock ticking backwards on things we’ve already built, sons and fathers die, soldiers, daughters killed, question ain’t do we have the resources to rebuild, do we have the will?” And “Prayer” is a cry to the heavens for determination and peace. “Oh you got to pray for redemption, Lord, keep me away from temptation, deliver us from evil and all this confusion around me, give me peace…”

Most of Black Messiah, however, is about love. Opener “Ain’t That Easy” finds D’Angelo layering that high, striking voice atop a Prince-like groove, pleading with his woman not to leave him. (D’Angelo sings all the vocal lines on this record, most of which are in multi-part harmony. His style takes some getting used to, but the arrangements are quite impressive.) “Sugah Daddy” is sparse and bouncy, little more than a circular piano figure over some minimal bass and percussion, and is about exactly what you’d expect it is. But he digs for deeper emotions on the gorgeous, Flamenco-tinged “Really Love” and the phenomenal closing song, “Another Life.”

The snaky, slinky guitars on this record, many of which were played by D’Angelo himself, are wonderful, and never more so than on “Betray My Heart,” my favorite song here. Everything comes together on this one – the jazzy beat, the walking bass line, the soulful organ, and D’Angelo’s marvelous melody and lyric: “Like the breeze that blows in June, I will steady keep you cool, this I swear with all that’s true, I’ll take nothing in place of you…” Oh, and then there are those tasty horns. If there’s an all-time, world-beating classic on this album, this is it.

And perhaps one reason I think so is that “Betray My Heart” is one of the most immediate tunes on offer here, in contrast to more complex pieces like “Prayer” and “1000 Deaths.” Even bloozy interlude “The Door” takes a couple listens to truly unravel. Black Messiah is a confident puzzle, but one that is worth taking the time to get to know. It reveals itself gradually as the work of a true artist, one who redefined his chosen field 14 years ago and has suddenly returned, messiah-like, to put it back on track.

I certainly hadn’t spent enough time with this record at the end of last year (hence the non-committal honorable mention), but now I feel like I know it well enough to say this: if there’s a better R&B record released this year, I will be stunned. Black Messiah is just that good.

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Of course, D’Angelo wasn’t the only one to slip new records out in the waning weeks of 2014. I’ve got time and space to talk about two more. (A third, Copeland’s Ixora, will get a review in the coming weeks, once the CD arrives.)

Back in July, I attended the second AudioFeed Festival in Champaign, Illinois, and for the second year in a row, I made several new musical discoveries. The best of those, I said at the time, was Von Strantz – I caught both a solo show by leader and mastermind Jess Strantz and a full-band blowout, and both impressed the hell out of me. At the festival I picked up their EP, Narratives Chapter One, and liked it a great deal.

Now here’s the band’s full-length bow, naturally called Narratives, and it fulfills the promise of the EP and then some. I get the sense that Von Strantz is more of a collective, and can feature any number or combination of musicians alongside Strantz. Narratives is a lush record, with strings and drums and synths and pianos, everything arranged in service of these marvelous little songs, each one getting exactly as much sonic love as it needs.

The focus, as it should be, is on those songs. It’s difficult to sum up just what Von Strantz does, since every song on Narratives has its own distinct identity. Some are poppy, some are folksy, some are down-home epics, and one of them is a bluesy sea shanty. The songs range from glorious declarations of devotion (the lovely “Fields”) to dark examinations of emotional infidelity (“The Line”) to Fiona Apple-esque laments about materialism (“1818”) to simple prayers (the wonderful closer “All I Need”).

And while the lush instrumentation adds to each one of these tunes, Narratives really is a coming-out party for Strantz as a songwriter. She’s one to watch, without a doubt. There is very little about Narratives that betrays the fact that it’s a first album. It was issued as three EPs, but listen to how well the whole thing flows together – the minor-key piano ballad “Something Beautiful” sidles up next to the strummy “Troubled Souls” like it was always meant to. From first note to last, Narratives is a heck of a debut for an unknown band that hopefully won’t be unknown for long.

Hear it and buy it here.

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And finally, there is Donnie Vie.

Longtime readers will know that I’m an unabashed, unapologetic fan of Enuff Z’Nuff. Over a dozen records, the band has written more terrific power pop songs than just about any of their contemporaries, and it’s those songs that have kept them going all these years. The music business has not been kind to EZN, and it seems unlikely that leader Donnie Vie will ever get the respect he deserves as a writer. But all you can do is keep on keeping on – Vie and the band parted ways years ago, and on his latest solo record, he’s down to playing almost all the instruments himself, at home. Here’s a guy who deserves to be recording at Abbey Road, and he’s making albums on his laptop.

But that’s OK, because the songs are still there. Vie’s latest is called The White Album, laying his biggest influence bare, and it’s a collection of 19 tracks spanning two discs. True to its inspiration, Vie’s White Album is a bit of a mess – there’s a live cover of “25 or 6 to 4” and a studio cover of “Imagine” shoved in there for no reason, and two of the songs on the second disc are labeled as outtakes. And yes, it sounds a bit cheap, and marred by blatty synthesizers, but that’s nothing new for Vie and EZN. Happily, none of that matters, because The White Album is yet another showcase for Vie’s songwriting, and it never lets him down.

The first disc, in fact, may be the strongest set of 11 songs he’s released under his own name. It opens with a straightforward sex romp called “I Wanna Do It To You,” but Vie’s ambition quickly deepens. “Crash and Burn” is a swell minor-key pop number reminiscent of Bond themes, “Light Shine On” is a delightful Beatlesque romp, and the gorgeous piano ballad “My Love” is a true highlight, both of this record and of Vie’s catalog. The big number here is “Unforsaken,” written, Vie says, at his lowest point. It’s an emotional epic that closes disc one in style.

You might think the second disc is meant as a bonus, but aside from the two covers (the worst of which is “25 or 6 to 4,” with its synth horns), it remains a fine showcase. “Almost Home” is the way power ballads should be written, “Angel Eyes” skips along confidently with a strong “ah-ah” hook, and closer “Freaky Deaky” sends things out on a rollicking note. At the center of all of this is Vie’s voice, as strong as it’s ever been. He still sounds like John Lennon here and there, but after nearly 30 years of making records, to me, he just sounds like Donnie Vie.

At more than 80 minutes, The White Album is a lot to take in, but I’m just glad Donnie Vie is still at it, still creating music. It seems absurd to complain about getting too much of it at once. Yes, I wish the man had a recording budget that matched his talent as a writer and a singer. But as long as he keeps making records – even if he has to strum an acoustic guitar into an old tape deck – I’ll keep buying them.

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Next week, the year truly begins with new ones from Guster, the Decemberists and Sleater-Kinney. Also on tap: the new Punch Brothers and Belle and Sebastian discs. And we’re off. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.