lordnewbornI’m very much a fan of Shawn Lee’s work, so the idea of a collaboration between him, Money Mark and Tommy Guerrero sounded pretty great. And having now heard the results, I was not let down. The record features twelve tracks, largely instrumental, and is an eclectic, highly addictive and utterly entertaining mix of jazz, funk, soul, electronica and prog rock, with an array of world music influences added here and there, and there are some video game music and sounds to boot. The recording session for Lord Newborn and the Magic Skulls lasted just two weeks at Money Mark’s Los Angeles studio, amazing considering no aspect of the album seems tossed off or otherwise rushed. There is a sense of fun and playfulness about the whole proceedings, which adds to the enjoyment. If some of it sounds like elements of a soundtrack to a film you think you might have seen, it’s because all the composers have done film work. (Lee also scored the video game Bully.) Recommended for fans of the individual artist, and for those looking for moody, cool sounding theme music for their groovy lives. Standout cuts: “Astro Blue,” “Dime Bag Conspiracy,” “She’s My Melody” and “Crazy Apartment.”

http://www.myspace.com/lordnewborn

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dianebirchNew York based musician Diane Birch, with her fine debut album Bible Belt, joins that burgeoning group of artists who have been shining a new light on old school funk and soul. While funk and soul has long been an inspiration for hip hop, rap and electronic music, artists like Birch, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and Amy Winehouse (when she’s actually performing) have been creating entire records of music that draw directly upon one of the great American musical forms of the 20th century. Birch, who sounds a bit like Carole King with a similar fondness for piano based music, takes a modest, unpretentious approach to soul, with sometimes remarkable and powerfully beautiful results, as on tracks like “Photograph,” one of my favorite songs on the album. The production is often lush, but not overblown, and the lyrics are warmhearted, direct and insightful. Birch is a real find, and hopefully her refreshingly subtle approach to music will find a wide audience. Standout cuts: “Fire Escape,” “Rewind,” “Photograph” and “Ariel.”

http://www.myspace.com/dianebirch

phbandFirst time listeners to the self-titled LP from New York City’s the Phenomenal Handclap Band may be forgiven for thinking they’re in for a prog rock fest based on the opening track, “The Journey to Serra da Estrela,” despite the presence of some funk and disco touches. Those funk and disco touches take over by the second track, “All Of The Above,” however, and are in full force by “You’ll Disappear,” which features a vocal by Carol C. that simultaneously recalls both the Fifth Dimension and the Tom Tom Club. The band, aside from the aforementioned genres, weave some 60’s influenced soul and psychedelic rock into the mix as well, and the result is some pretty sweet sounding, often slow burning jams, most hovering around the six minute mark, which gives the tracks ample room to breathe. The vocals are a mix of male and female, and the musicianship is inventive and top drawer, with some notably good guitar work. The album starts to run out of gas towards the end, but The Phenomenal Handclap Band is nevertheless an auspicious dance rock debut. Standout cuts: “All Of The Above,” “You’ll Disappear,” “15 To 20” and “The Martyr.”

http://www.myspace.com/phenomenalhandclap d

shawnleesoulintheholeIt’s good to be a fan of Shawn Lee, London based American multi-instrumentalist, since he’s prolific enough that each year brings at least two, sometimes three, Lee releases, some albums fully instrumental, some vocal, some a combination of both. His latest LP, Shawn Lee Presents Soul In The Hole, is 11 tracks of “old school soul,” to borrow Lee’s phrase, and, wow, is it good stuff. The time period Lee is emulating falls somewhere around the late 60’s to the mid 70’s, and the production is designed to sound like music released during those years, complete with horn sections and washes of strings. This is an approach to music not unlike Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and the Budos Band, with similarly excellent results. Lee provides the vocals on a handful of tracks, though he mostly leaves those up to a talented array of guest vocalists, including Nicole Willis, Fanny Franklin, Karime Kendra, Paul Butler, Darondo, even his wife, who is billed here as “Mrs. Lee.” For soul fans, I think this will be a true delight, for those new to Lee’s unique musical genius, this is a great place to jump on board, as this is his best vocal record yet. Standout cuts: “Jigsaw,” “Land Of Soul,” “Cruel Woman” and “The Stuff.”

http://www.myspace.com/shawnleemusic

Typically solid release from London based American multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee, this time in collaboration with California based fellow traveler Clutchy Hopkins, who, according to Lee, gave Lee his trademark tiger mask. The emphasis on the 12 instrumental tracks contained here is on funk and soul, with a little jazz and various world music influences thrown in as well. Their collaboration is a little more low key than I had expected, but it’s still pretty tasty stuff, and as per usual with Lee’s releases,very smooth and great fun to listen to, the soundtrack to the groovy life you’re planning on having. This is the first music I’ve heard from Hopkins: He’s got two previous releases out, Walking Backwards from earlier this year, and 2006’s The Life Of Clutchy Hopkins, both of which I intend to listen to now. Standout cuts: “Full Moon,” “Dollar Short,” “Bad Influence” and “Indian Burn.”

http://www.myspace.com/shawnleemusic

http://www.myspace.com/whoisclutchyhopkins

“Now step aside! Check it, tight pants, woo!”

Palm Desert based band Eagles of Death Metal’s latest album, Heart On, contains a tongue in cheek, wickedly effective blend of garage rock, glam rock and funk that sometimes threatens to spill over into novelty territory but is savvy enough to never quite go down that road. It’s sexy, it rocks, and it’s got a beat and you can dance to it, and it may just convince listeners that they, too, are sexy and that they, too, rock. They also do a convincing take on psychedelic folk with “Now I’m A Fool,” which, as with a lot of songs on Heart On, has to do with the pitfalls of living in and around the Los Angeles scene. (Some of the joys are noted in other songs.) My favorite songs are contained in the first half of the album, but the band nevertheless winds things up in memorable fashion with “I’m Your Torpedo.” All in all, an solid, enjoyable release from a band unlike any other on the American scene. Standout cuts: “WannaBe in L.A.,” “High Voltage,” “Secret Plans” and “I’m Your Torpedo.”

http://www.myspace.com/eaglesofdeathmetal

“Lamping is the name of a rather dreadful hunting technique where, hunters go into the forest at night, flood an area in light, then shoot,or capture,the animals as they panic and run from their hiding places.

this album is my attempt at doing this to my proverbial skeletons. i haven’t yet decided if i should shoot or just capture them though.” – Kevin Barnes, lead singer and songwriter for Of Montreal

The latest release from Of Montreal is a concept album about a self-described middle aged “black she-male” named Georgie Fruit, veteran of a 70’s funk band as well as multiple sex changes. Skeletal Lamping, with its subject matter coupled with Barnes’ mission statement for the album, quoted in part above, is the most ambitious, deliberately challenging and even confrontational album Of Montreal has released to date. It takes a lot of risks, and while not all of them pay off, the album is nevertheless compelling throughout because though Barnes and the band set out to confound listener expectations with Skeletal Lamping, they’ve still made an entertaining, frequently delightful set of music, liberally dosed with funk and a little disco to boot. Describing Of Montreal’s sound as “psychedelic pop” seems woefully inadequate at this point, since the densely layered music on Skeletal Lamping restlessly jumps from style to style multiple times, sometimes even within the context of a single song, effectively mimicking a fractured, fragmented consciousness. The lyrics are sexually frank, sometimes strange, sometimes disturbing and repellent, other times witty and joyous, expressing the profound ambivalence of the album’s main character and perhaps of Barnes himself, who has described himself as spending most of his time “in a state of mild confusion and pensiveness.” Skeletal Lamping is a fascinating, provocative, flawed, sometimes incoherent but utterly alive piece of work. You may love it or you may hate it, but if you’re a fan of indie rock and pop, you should give it at least a listen. Standout cuts: “Nonpareil Of Favor,” “Wicked Wisdom,” “An Eluardian Instance” and “Id Engager.”

http://www.myspace.com/ofmontreal

Los Angeles based Nikka Costa’s latest album, Pebble To A Pearl, her first for Stax Records, is a hugely entertaining funk record, firmly rooted in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but hardly a nostalgia trip. Instead, Costa is a funk traditionalist whose fresh take on one of America’s great pop musical forms makes a great case for why funk has never really gone out of style. On Pebble To A Pearl, she’s backed by an ace band, who provide her sultry, soulful voice with a rich, dynamic background steeped in guitar, keyboards, organs and a horn section, not to mention some terrific background vocals. Costa and her band really shine on tracks where they give themselves room to roam a bit, as on the nearly 7 minute track, “Damn I Said It First.” Pebble To A Pearl is a truly satisfying album from first note to the last, and should make a lot of funk fans very happy indeed. Standout cuts: “Stuck To You,” “Can’t Please Everybody,” “Keep Pushin'” and “Damn I Said It First.”

http://www.myspace.com/nikkacosta

“I’m going to take you home…”

The new album from New York City based band TV On The Radio is their first record that’s really, truly bowled me over. It’s like Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, Prince, the Clash and David Bowie somehow got together and made some electronic music, inviting in string and horn sections along the way. It’s ambitious and positively overflowing with ideas to the point where it’s difficult to take it all in on a single listen. Dear Science seems like one of those perfectly timed albums that captures a moment in time, the feel of a nation and a world on the verge of what may be enormous changes, charged with both hope and a profound ambivalence. The lyrics are optimistic but tempered by caution, forward thinking but deeply worried about the present. Dear Science is a reminder why many of us like music to begin with, because it moves us, makes us want to move, and connects us with all the things with which we want to be connected. And did I mention that it rocks, and is funky as all get out? This is inspired stuff, and you really should listen to it, because it was made just for you. Standout cuts: “Halfway Home,” “Dancing Choose,” “Golden Age” and “Shout Me Out.”

http://www.myspace.com/tvotr

Evil Urges, the latest album from Louisville, Kentucky based band My Morning Jacket, is the kind of album that some longtime fans of the band will love, while others will just hate. Nevertheless, this is the first album I’ve heard by them that I thought bordered on great. They’ve layered on some funk (by way of George Clinton and Prince in particular), soul and some Yes-style prog rock influences to their mix of country, folk and Southern rock. Listeners may not even recognize the first three tracks as even being My Morning Jacket, with their soul falsetto wailing and generally funky trappings, not until “I’m Amazed” kicks in, anyway, which treads on more familiar ground for them and also happens to be one of the best tracks. They eventually get around to kicking out the jams on tracks like “Aluminum Park” (another highlight) and “Remnants,” and wind things up with the eight minute plus “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt.2,” which almost, but doesn’t quite, morph into a disco/funk ballad. My Morning Jacket takes a lot of risks on Evil Urges, and while not all necessarily pay off, enough do to make it one of their most interesting and rewarding albums yet. Standout cuts: “Evil Urges,” “Highly Suspicious,” “I’m Amazed” and “Aluminum Park.”

http://www.myspace.com/mymorningjacket