Posts Tagged ‘Stax’

Sydney go-to guitarist Illya Szwec has to be aware of the irony of titling his new album Introducing Illya Szwec. Ok, it is his debut album as a leader, but the man has been around forever, played with everybody and very definitely needs no introduction.

The bio that came with my review copy is two solid pages of star-time names – not two pages of the usual double-spaced flummery, puffing up a thin resume as too many are, but two pages dense with names such as ‘Continental’ Robert Susz (Szwec has played in his Continental Blues Party for the past 7 years), Declan Kelly (gigs and recording on his Adrift LP), boogie-king Don Hopkins, boogie-queen Bridie King, The Wolverines, Wendy Saddington, Jim Conway, Ray Beadle, Johnny G, Eugene ‘Hideaway’ Bridges, and such.

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It is such a virtual phone book of Australian blues, rock and roots royalty that it could easily sway my review of Introducing Illya Szwec – hell, that’s what PR is for, right?

Which is exactly why I totally ignored it and did my best to listen to Introducing Illya Szwec with clean, unencumbered, objective ears (hell, that’s what record reviewers are for, right?).

Open ‘Ain’t Nothing That A Young Girl Can Do’ instantly brought a smile to my jaded sensibilities – a warm Meters-style NOLA groove gently pushed along by Szwec’s gently needling Telecaster. Pure taste – which left me a tad apprehensive as well: there is a musical element in this town which exalts ‘taste’ above all else, sometimes expunging all grit and juice from the music in the process. I hoped this was not going to be the case as I listened deeper.

It wasn’t – second track, a cover of Cream’s psychedelic anthem, ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ blew away my concerns. With a cap-S Soulful vocal from Stephanie Marchant and driven by Ed Schots’ muscular horns, Szwec’s ‘Sunshine…’ owes as much to Ginger Baker’s 1970 Airforce version as it does to any number of cooking Stax soul treatments.

The sole Szwec composition here, ‘Lois Maxwell’ is a witty and snappin’ piece of James Bond-inspired reggae (the lady of the title is the actress who played the smart but unrequited Miss Moneypenny in many Bond movies). Reggae pops (literally) up across Introducing Illya Szwec on the smooth ‘Missing You’ (nicely felt vocal from Troy Blanch) and in a more funky, ska-hot form on James Booker’s ‘Big Nick’.szwec1

It is the loose-limbed forms such as reggae and funk that seem to fit Illya Szwec’s musical shape well. His playing, whether fuzzed-up on ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ or hollow-body howlin’ on ‘Fire Eater’ (driven by Clayton Doley’s happening Hammond), combines a warmth of personality with a cool passion – in short, in common with most great instrumentalists it has a very human voice.

He also speaks fluent Blues – hardly surprising as it is of course the Blues which is the dark river that flows through all of this music, like rich blood under skin. Check out Szwec and Marchant’s take on Isaac Hayes and David Porter’s ‘When My Love Comes Down’. Tingle-making stuff.

Too often a booked-up super-instrumentalist releases an album that ultimately amounts to not much more than a professional’s portfolio – a kind of aural show-reel of their skill-set – with all the glassy blandness that such an approach implies.

Introducing Illya Szwec ain’t that at all. Sure, the skills and craft are there – which is why this album is crammed to the rafters with Sydney’s finest players. But they are all having a time of it, obviously inspired and brightened up by the big heart that beats deep inside Illya Szwec’s guitar playing.

Published September 2013 on theorangepress.net

‘In a Little While’, the debut single released earlier this year by Melbourne vocalist, Maxi Vauzelle gave us a taste of what was to come. A quite irresistible piece of pop-soul, ‘In a Little While’ balanced old school and nu-soul flavours nicely with Vauzelle’s voice standing out immediately to the ear as one to watch.

‘In a Little While’ sits right in the middle of Vauzelle’s new EP, MAXI – five tracks (well, four and a bit) of soul that is thankfully not too serious – drawing together elements of 70s disco, gospel and synth-pop to make a truly original whole.

Maxi Vauzelle – who goes by the hip contraction of Maxi – has teamed with producer Joel Witenberg to hone these tunes, written in her parent’s attic over the summer of 2011/12, into what we hear on MAXI. Using a core of smart musos (check guitarist Adam Starr’s Earth-Wind-&-Fire horn arrangements on ‘For Me’) and some nice production imagination (the thinned out percussion under the lush vocal harmony on ‘In a Little While’ is sharp and effective), Witenberg has framed Maxi’s songs and stand-out voice perfectly.
The informal opener, aptly called ‘Intro’ weaves gospel voices over a finger-popping background, intertwining and blending into church harmony before the jungle drums of ‘From The Start’ take us to Motown. Perfect groove, Stax-soul horns, neat hook.

The single, ‘In a Little While’ keeps the standard up, warmed up this time with the smoulder of vintage synths. Disco mover, ‘For Me’ (with those tasty horns) has a mirror-ball vibe that should earmark it for the next single (or my next party).

EP closer, the moody ‘Heaven Helped You Down’, a minor key torch anthem with cinematic thunder drums shows Maxi’s flawless vocal harmonies – used richly throughout the five tracks – to great effect; stacked four or five voices high, they create a wall, a curtain, a river of sound wherever Witenberg uses them. It is a mark of Witenberg’s taste (and soul-smarts) that ‘Heaven Helped You Down’ never boils over but aches through to the end.

Very nice – I am taken with that balance of production, as we heard recently on Adele’s omnipresent world-beater 21, of a lush treatment that still manages to have the immediacy of a band playing for you in a room. Maxi’s vocal is also reminiscent of Adele’s – not the sometimes too-pushed power of the British singer, but the warmth and nuance that goes back to soul’s golden period. What Maxi adds is the sass of disco-divas such as Alicia Bridges and Gloria Gaynor. As I said, one to watch.

Maxi’s website is here.

 

Published September 2012 on theorangepress.net

 

 

 

 

Sometimes the best things in life (and music) come from wrong turns. The Beatles trying to replicate Motown hits and getting it so gloriously wrong. The Ramones‘ attempt at being a bubblegum band, botched but ultimately birthing a new direction for rock. It is said the ‘blue’ (or flattened) notes in early blues – the basis for so much in the vernacular of popular music – came from slaves’ inaccurate hearing of distantly played Western classical music. Who knows?

Joe Camilleri set out to make a Hank Williams-inspired record in Nashville. Instead, he ended up making a triple-album set, holding 24 new songs, with almost everyone who ever played in his band The Black Sorrows, and housing it in an art book with original paintings by Sydney artist, Victor Rubin. This wrong turn (or series of wrong turns), led to Crooked Little Thoughts. All hail the wrong turn, summed up neatly in Camilleri’s lyric, “The world’s a sea of stories and nothing goes to plan…”

Camilleri says of his beloved Black Sorrows “On a good night we’re a great band… On a bad night, we’re a train wreck. And I reckon that’s the way bands should be… I’d rather fall on my face than be the same every night.” It is this mission statement that not only gives Crooked Little Thoughts its restless ecleticism (covering rock’n’roll, reggae, country, blues, gospel etc), but also its rollicking and blood-pumping live feeling across all 24 tracks.

From horn-and-string-laden funk opener ‘Money Talkin’ – with great blues-guitar from Claude Carranza – the ‘family’ vibe is evident. The lead vocal is shared by Camilleri and Sorrows newcomer (and quite a find!), the wonderfully named Atlanta May Coogan, with big bad backing vocal from the Wolfgramm sisters, Eliza, Kelly and Talei. There are 14 people on this track, yet they are all driving the same bus, all working towards making the song live its own life for 4:36.

This ‘family’ vibe is all over Crooked Little Thoughts – some tunes are sparser of course: the Tex-Mex ‘Our Town’, the Nashville ballad ‘The Spell is Broken’, the Bakersfield boogie ‘Dustbowl Blues’ – but every tune has just what it needs; the gumbo cooked up from the amazingly rich pantry of the Sorrows wonderful instrumentalists: Rockwiz’s James Black, jazz guitarist James Sherlock, tenor man Wilbur Wilde, drummer David Jones.

And they can rock too: ‘Shelley’ cooks with Stonesy guitars, ‘I’m the One’ takes us back to the humid Melbourne days of Camilleri’s hit band, Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons, ‘Waitin for the Hammer’ bristles with Stax soul excitement. Unlike too many double- or triple-album sets (of which it is often said that they would have made one great single album), every song here counts; the riches on Crooked Little Thoughts are many and varied. The moods, colours and stories here are tied together by something as simple as ‘heart’ – all the characters, streets, towns, kisses and sads are real, and very human.

Mention needs to be made of two huge talents, apart from the raggedly glorious Mr Joe Camilleri, that contribute indelibly to the album: that of vocalist Atlanta Coogan and artist Victor Rubin. Atlanta May Coogan (her name could come from a Camilleri tune!) is a great voice; her stamp is all over the music here, whether sharing lead vocal with Joe (‘Its Only Xmas’ is standout), or taking the lead on her own on the torchy blues ‘Lovin You’, one can hear why she made Mr Camilleri’s ears prick up when he first heard her on the Fogg album he produced in 2003.

Lastly, the other creative personality who undoubtedly makes Crooked Little Thoughts really something is painter Victor Rubin. The artworks he has created for each of the 24 tracks – they each face the song’s lyrics on double-page spreads – are timelessly modern, brilliantly original and full of a passionate lunge of feeling in their execution; in this they fit with the Black Sorrows’ music so well: nothing clever-clever, nothing too clean, slick or pointlessly polished. They are just right, and help to elevate this remarkable package of song- stories, story-songs and song-pictures into one of the great artifacts of Australian music.

The Black Sorrows website is here.

Victor Rubin’s website is here.

Crooked Little Thoughts is out on Head Records.

Published April 2012 on theorangepress.net

After half a century of constant development, inspiration and hothouse flowerings, certain genres have found their perfect expression – soul-funk is one of them.

Sydney 8-piece Dojo Cuts are one perfect expression of this perfect expression. Lean, mean and heavy (in the true sense) there is not a bass-note or hihat-beat out of place – everything is slave to the groove, and what grooves they are! Working from, and building upon, the original late 60s/early 70s Stax/Atlantic rhythm-with-horns template, Dojo Cuts have joined current movers and shakers such as The Dap Kings in keeping this music not only alive, but bursting with blood, sweat and joyful tears.

Every band has their secret weapon and Dojo Cuts are blessed with two – the insistent and driving rhythm guitar of Nathan Aust and the startling vocal of singer Roxie Ray. The role of the rhythm guitar in this music cannot be overstated: the unadorned tone of a semi-acoustic through a vintage amp has that percussive chug and chop that links the harmonic with the rhythmic and ties it all together just beautifully.

And in a music known for its killer queens – Aretha, Mavis Staples, Etta James – Dojo Cuts’ Roxie Ray stands up proud. She has that perfect balance of soul and control and her voice is as highly individual as our own Kylie Auldist and Lanie Lane. Craig Charles of UK BBC6’s Funk & Soul Show says “Roxie Ray could sing the phone book and I would buy it”. Right on, Craig.

On his colourful liner notes to Dojo Cuts’ new album Take From MeRuss Dewbury (of Jazz Rooms fame) calls the band the “undisputed champions of the sound” and says “Dojo Cuts go route 1 to your soul”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

After the jumping horn funk intro of ‘El Entro’ the band get down to dirty business with the sweet soul strut of ‘I Can Give’ and the party is on. ‘Mamacita’ is one of many standouts – a thrill ride with tasty latin jazz-flute filigrees decorating the funky greasy pork chops. ‘Sonny’s Strut’ lets the band flex their groove muscles; ‘Sometimes It Hurts’ is late night city lights and sorrow over cocktails; title track ‘Take From Me’ is smooth as skin – the album is soul-funk riches from go to whoa. 

Such is the confidence of Dojo Cuts with this material that they cover the recently departed Etta James’ 1968 soul anthem ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ – and carry it off perfectly, with Ray delivering all the soul-preaching and testifying it needs. No mean feat.

By the time we are flung sweating off the roller coaster of closer Marva Whitney’s ‘What Do I Have To Do?’, Dojo Cuts have done their job of shakin’ our asses, squeezing our hearts and making us thank God above for James Brown, Otis Redding and all the soul saints in heaven for this music. Take a listen, have a dance, take the Take From Me ride.

Take From Me will be released April 16, 2012 on Record Kicks

The Take From Me album launch party will be at Sydney’s The MAC on 20 May.

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Before posting this review, The OrangePress put a handful of questions to Dojo Cuts’ main man Nathan Aust. Here are his responses:

1. Your first album DOJO CUTS came out in 2009 – why so long between drinks?

We were all very busy!  Roxie went to Europe and did some shows, Guy the original bassist left to go back home to Manchester and Ed the original drummer left the band for other reasons.  So, I started up another band called The Liberators, also on Record Kicks.  Ed the original drummer played guitar in that band.

2. The new album has a nice ‘live’ sound to it – how was it recorded?

It was recorded pretty much live, everyone in the same room except for vocal overdubs.  Went straight to tape too.  We recorded the whole thing over two days!

3. You tackle a couple of killer soul standards. What made you select Etta James’ ‘I’d Rather Go Blind?”

“I’d Rather Go Blind” was chosen by Roxie. Roxie and I would do little duet gigs around town and it was one of the covers we’d do. So we threw it in the mix and thought it came out sounding alright.

4. Dojo Cuts has always gone for a very authentic Atlantic/Stax sound – what are the modern elements in you music?

We’ve always just played the way we like and are obviously influenced by those records. When it comes to modern elements, we obviously influenced by Daptone, but they’re in the same boat as us when it comes to influences. Kind of a vicious soul circle.

5. What do you think the timeless appeal of R&B and Soul is?

I think a friend of mine Miss Sharon Jones said it right “What comes from the heart, goes straight to the heart”.  Plus it just sounds damn good!

6. Finally – what are your thoughts on the music scene today?

To be honest, I’m not really in a good position to answer that.  In regards to mass pop music, I’m clueless, I hardly listen to the mainstream radios or TV. However, I do think that there is a great underground Soul and Afro presence and keep my ears tuned to that.  Bands like Third Coast Kings, Deep Street Soul and all the stuff Record Kicks is putting out is feeding me nowadays.

Published April 2012 on theorangepress.net

Retro-based music, even when it is as lovingly created and truly heartfelt as the rash of nu-soul releases of the past ten or so years, is nonetheless a tightrope walk. The balance of ‘nu’ to old school is a fine one –Amy Winehouse could do it beautifully (especially under the style-eye of Mark Ronson), Adele can do it just fine with her great big heart – but too often, the old school looms too big in the mix, and the thing falls flat, sliding into nostalgic pastiche. Why is this? One theory is that it is easy to cherry-pick from the extant past which lies below one’s fingertips in racks upon racks of Motown and Stax vinyl, but much harder to create ‘nu’ ideas.

Andrew Mayer Cohen’s second album How Do You Do? under the nom-du-Soul ofMayer Hawthorne (a portmanteau of his middle name and the Michigan street of his childhood) is a release that has got me thinking on this nu/old school thing again. The album sails so close to the wind most of the time – pureTemptations here, spot-onSmokey Robinson there, a little too Isaac Hayes here again – that it is all too easy to sniff and go back to the ‘real stuff’, the original Soul sides that echo endlessly on this record.

But – and this is a big BUT – How Do You Do? is so damn good that it knocks my over-thought critique flat on its tweedy ass. Impeccably constructed, smartly arranged and played with real juicy groove (the Funk Brothers smile down from the golden-brown Motown sunset upon these righteous tracks), it is irresistible.

Yet it is the vocal that makes one really sit up (it is always the vocal that makes one sit up!). Hawthorne’s voice can stand up to anything these twelve neat tracks (12 x 3min tracks – just like they used to do on 70s vinyl) ask of it. From smoky Smokey Robinson falsetto to David Ruffin-style urgency to Teddy Pendergrasslove-man come-on, the vocals are a treat. Even the mirrorball dappled spoken-word intro (“So here we are, at the end of the night… “) to opener ‘Get To Know You’ is cool, not corn.

They call it blue-eyed soul, but like so many odd loops in popular music, it is the music of white artists emulating the black artists who emulated white artists – indeed, mighty Motown aimed directly for the 60s white teen market under the banner ‘The Sound of Young America’ with cool, stylish acts such as theMiracles and the Supremes. This Groovy sound was heavy on the pop, hardly breaking a sweat (that was left to the hardcore soul labels such as Stax and Atlantic) as it chewed up the charts, turning on bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys.

Much of How Do You Do? harks back to that Motown sound – ‘The Walk’ and the driving ‘Hooked’ are pure Detroit pop-soul gems – with much of it also reminding me of the slick Hall & Oates 70s take on soul. But even more than that, tracks like ‘Dreaming’ or the finger-popping ‘Stick Around’ bring to mind the almost forgotten 1967 Beach Boys ‘soul album’ Wild Honey. Perfect sunkissed harmonies and an innocence in the lyrics make this all very pretty music – even a guest spot on ‘Can’t Stop’ by the wry Snoop Dogg doesn’t dent its white-gleam sheen. Nothing wrong with pretty; pretty never did the Supremes or Muhammed Aliany harm.

Mayer Hawthorne is undoubtedly one of the real kool kidz – his talent and cool is beyond doubt; to realise this grew out of a side project encouraged into the studio by his label boss, Peanut Butter Wolf (yep, that’s what it says) indicates how easy it all is for former-rapper Hawthorne. 

Is it all an ironic pose? Doesn’t seem to be, even though Hawthorne’s hipster credentials had me forensically searching How Do You Do? for signs of post-modern fuck-off. When he says “I have found my own unique sound on this album” I think he must be kidding – beautifully rendered, yes; unique, no. This is the man who issued his debut single (‘Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out’) on a red, heartshaped 7” vinyl single.

Whatever. How Do You Do? is a groovelicious, party-starting, gooey-romantic gas. I am going to spin it again now – I am getting to quite enjoy being knocked flat on my tweedy critic’s ass.

Published February 2012 on theorangepress.net