Supergroup Showcase: John Legend & The Roots

THE PLAYERS: John Legend (vocals) and The Roots (everything else)
THE STORY: Inspired by his experience campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008, John Legend decided he wanted to make a record with The Roots that reflected how he felt at the time. They got together, recorded a series of covers and one original track and the results was the 2010 album Wake Up! (via Wiki).

Like a lot of posts, I’m going to kick this one off with a story from my past. It’s not too long, so don’t worry, I’ll get to the music shortly. Like a lot of colleges, my school Ohio Wesleyan University held a yearly concert on campus for the students called SpringFest. I never actually went to one because I either didn’t care or had something better to do (seeing Everclear with my buddy Jeff instead of watching The Counting Crows). But there was one year that I really wanted to attend and that was when The Roots were playing. I’d never actually listened to the funk/hip-hop group’s records at that point, but I knew of Questlove from that hilarious Chappelle Show skit with him and John Mayer and the band from my buddy Toth who’s always been a lot more tapped in than me. I was all set to buy my ticket after Easter, but on the way back to school after heading home for the weekend, I got a crazy speeding ticket. Money was tight in college and the speeding ticket completely wiped me out, so I couldn’t go to the show. Wah wah.

Fast forward to modern times. Jimmy Fallon scores Conan O’Brien’s old spot on Late Night and he makes the ingenious decision to hire The Roots as his house band. Not only did he instantly score the best band in late night, but also gave me and millions of other night owls the opportunity to become familiar with the group. After being so impressed by their chops I went out and bought one of their albums Phrenology, but it’s more of a slick hip-hop record and that’s not what I was looking for. I wanted something a little more soulful and funky. I didn’t have to wait too long because, soon enough, Jimmy was talking about a new record featuring an epic team-up of soul singer John Legend and the band called Wake Up!

I didn’t run out immediately and buy the album. In fact, it wasn’t until I saw the digital version on sale on Amazon for $5 that I bit. Man, what a fantastic use of a Lincoln. Like The Roots, I’ve long admired and appreciated John Legend from a distance either through live performances on TV shows or guest spots on other records, but I never jumped in and got one of his records. Wake Up! seems like the perfect entryway to both bands but also offers up all the soul/funk/rock/hip-hop stew that I could want from this collaboration. As far as supergroups go, these are two great tastes that taste great together, almost like they’d been playing together for years.

I even dig the fact that they went after lesser known songs to cover for the most part. I’m no soul/funk aficionado, but even I have heard “Wholy Holy.” The rest though are mysteries that feel both historical and fresh at the same time, making me want to check out the originals. It should come as no surprise that every track on the record had me bobbing my head along to the groove. Heck, it even calmed me down as I wrote this post in a coffee shop right next to a pair of teenagers who couldn’t keep their paws off of each other and kept playing with the girl’s hair RIGHT NEAR MY COFFEE. Okay, well, it didn’t calm me down too much I guess.

If you’ve never gotten into but always been curious about soul music of the 60s and 70s, The Roots or John Legend, Wake Up! is essentially the perfect mix of all three. The record can act as a gateway, but also stands as a fantastic, sometimes funky sometimes mellow but always sonically pleasing¬† listening experience for pretty much any kind of mood. Feeling down? This record will cheer you up. Feeling good? You’ll feel even better. Seriously, the original track “Shine” is really helping to calm me down about those teenagers. They left by the way. Good thing too, or I was going to blare Husker Du in their ears. In conclusion, Wake Up! is a rad record, but it will not help you chase away teenagers who won’t stop playing with their hair. It will probably just make them want to make out, which is far worse. This ends the review as well as the cranky old man portion of the proceedings today.

My Favorite New Albums Of 2010

I actually had a pretty good time compiling last year’s list of my favorite albums of the year and figured now’s as good a time as any to get around to this year’s. The funny thing about this year is that, while I probably acquired more CDs than I have in quite a while thanks to flea markets, garage sales and sales, I didn’t actually buy a lot of new music. New to me of course, but not new new. So, with that in mind, I’ll probably do another post about my favorite new-to-me discs of the year next week. Anyway, my favorite records of the year are a mix of smokey rockers, soul sisters, pop rock stalwarts, metal dudes, collaborators, introspective song writers and more. Hit the jump for the full list! Continue reading My Favorite New Albums Of 2010

Casting Internets

I actually wrote this a few days ago and forgot to publish it, so let’s call it today’s belated links. I was busy today with work, so I didn’t read a lot. Actually I lead a lot of a new site I discovered called Rock On, Sistahs! I love writer Kiki-Rockgarden’s sharp, insightful and concise assessments of rock music. Sure, I don’t agree with her on everything, but that’s bound to happen. I’m working my way through all her back posts and will hopefully finish up tomorrow if I have time. I love Beetlejuice and I dig this new print over at Mondo. I think it would scare the shit out of the kid though. It kind of scares me a little. (via /Film)Lastly, Dan Hipp‘s commission featuring Batman baddies Penguin, Joker, Mr. Freeze, The Riddler, Poison Ivy and Two Face is rad. I love how he colors his pieces. That’s all for today.

Songs Of Summer “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin'” by Hanson

I get sick of pop music pretty quickly nowadays. I try watching VH1 in the morning sometimes just to see what new videos are coming out to talk about on the blog, but after several weeks of the same crap earlier this summer I had to step away. Today I watched an hour of videos, most of which I hadn’t seen, and came across this rad Hanson song (14-year-old TJ just threw up in his mouth a little bit in the past and has no idea why). It’s a great soul song by the former MMMboppers which shows off not only their solid musicianship but also their good taste in faithfully recreating the Ray Charles music shop scene from the classic Blues Brothers (and yes, that’s Weird Al playing tambourine for some reason). It’s a clean, bouncy hit, that defies you not to bob your head along to the beat.

Cool, right? Anyway, a few years back I heard one of Hanson’s then-new singles and I was pretty impressed with the guitar work which made me realize they’re actually solid musicians. This song definitely takes them out of the pop realm (at least the current pop realm) and puts them in a different musical arena that actually involves musicianship. I’m hoping this 70s soul-inspired thing really takes off because that’s some of the all time best music ever. I know it’s late in the season, but hopefully “Thinking ‘Bout Sometin'” can take the place of one of those awful songs I’ve heard a thousand times on the missus’ pop stations. Damn, you really can’t go wrong with a strong horn section!

My Performing Songwriter Record Reviews

For a brief, shining few months I was an honest to goodness record reviewer. It was a dream I’d had ever since I realized I loved both writing and music (probably around 8th grade). While I might have envisioned myself writing for Rolling Stone or Spin (is that mag even around anymore?), it was a now-defunct mag called Performing Songwriter and my buddy Jesse who made the dream come true. I hadn’t heard about PS before he started working there after he left Wizard, but after I started reading it, I realized it was pretty great. Eventually I bugged Jesse enough and he gave me a shot at writing for PS, my first issue was the September/October 2008 issue where I reviewed Raine Maida and Amy Macdonald’s records. I’d go on to do nine total reviews (there would have been more, but PR people wouldn’t get back to me or records wouldn’t be done on time) up until the magazine called it quits with the June 2009 issue. And let me tell you one of my all time favorite writing memories was the time I went into a grocery store near my house and found both Performing Songwriter and ToyFare (my day job at the time) on the same rack. I put them next to each other and left them like that for the next person, maybe they’d make the connection.

All told, my output included Amy Macdonald’s This Is The Life (Sep./Oct. 2009), Arizona’s Glowing Bird (Nov. 2008), Courtney Fairchild’s 11 Chances (Jun. 2009), Erin McCarley’s Love, Save The Empty (Jan./Feb. 2009), Hinder’s Take It To The Limit (Dec. 2008), Juliette Commagere’s Queens Die Proudly (Dec. 2008), Laura Izibor’s Let The Truth Be Told (Jun. 2009), Raine Maida’s The Hunter’s Lullaby (Sep./Oct. 2008) and Tina Dico’s A Beginning, A Detour, An Open Ending (Mar./Apr. 2009). To be honest, I hadn’t heard of most of these artists when first given the assignments, but I really liked Arizona and Laura Izibor. I ended up reviewing a lot of records by women that I didn’t really like, but I swear it’s not because I dislike lady singers, it was just bad luck of the draw (I’ve been mentally putting together a list of rad female singers in my head for a while now that I’ll get to soon). Anyway, here are the record review scans. You can’t really see it, but the images below are in the same alphabetical order as the list above, so enjoy. I hope you have as much fun reading them as I had writing them.

Record Review: The Phenomenal Handclap Band (2009)

If you would have told me a few months back how much I would like a record from an all star line-up of indie rockers, I’d tell you you’re crazy. When I think of indie rock nowadays, I gotta say, images of shoegazers playing super slow and mostly boring music pops into my head. It’s inaccurate and unfair I know, but I it’s honest. Well, all that went out the door with The Phenomenal Handclap Band’s self titled record.

I actually got sent a copy of this record back when I was doing album reviews for the now defunct Performing SongwriterPerforming Songwriter. Brooke over at Big Hassle, who is awesome, sent me this record and I suck for not reviewing it sooner, especially considering how much I freaking love it.

Now, unfortunately, The PHB don’t have a Wiki page, their blog isn’t super informative and I’ve misplaced the press release I was sent along with the record, so I can’t give too much background, but I do remember it being hyped as a band made up of indie rock all-stars. And, since there’s different singers on nearly every track, I’m guessing this is almost like a Timbaland record, where the same producers/band are consistent with different singers.

Against all my expectations, this record turned out to be a conglomeration of 60s and 70s riffs and grooves laid over some amazingly catchy synth beats. It’s like Deep Purple meets Sly and the Family Stone…with a synthesizer. I’m not very familiar with synth pop, but this is the best I’ve heard it lately.

The album, which came out on June 23 from Friendly Fire, sports 12 tracks and curiously opens with a just-over-6 minute instrumental called “The Journey To Serra Da Estrela.” This again, threw up a red flag as far as I was concerned (who starts a record with an instrumental?), but it makes an awesome journey starting with some Pink Floyd-like atmosphere and gets heavily into the synth-funk. Every time I was just about to get bored, they introduced another element that drops in seamlessly and adds another layer.

And really, that’s what I love about this record, there’s so many layers. I’ve listened to it so many times and it feels like I’m picking up new elements every time. I also think I get a new favorite song each time. This time around it’s track 6 called “15 to 20” which features Lady Tigra, who I haven’t heard of, but will definitely check out. First off the groove is just sick. You can’t help but bob your head and tap your foot at the very least. Even the lyrics, which consist of counting for a good portion of the song, are awesome and delivered beautifully, especially when the counting stops and we hit rapid fire mode. Great stuff.

The whole album is like this, even though the singers switch up with each new track (I think, there might be a few repeat singers). There is one song though that I just can’t get into. It’s called “Baby,” and instead of being a a rock/synth combo, it’s a a soul/R&B throwback. It’s not a bad song, but instead of feeling inspired by other music, like the rest of the record, it just feels like a lift. Maybe it’s because soul is still around and I’ve heard lots of new songs like this and there isn’t a lot of 70s-influenced rock on the radio anymore. Or maybe that it sounded like a combination of Marvin Gaye and James Brown. It just felt TOO similar, even though the music and singing were solid.

But, “Baby” doesn’t ruin the album by any means, and maybe in a few weeks, when I listen to it again, it’ll jump to my favorites list. Another big surprise on the record was the last track called “The Circle Is Broken” which is a nearly-9 minute track. Again, I wasn’t so sure about such a long final track, but like the first one, it gets crazy and awesome, just when it might get a little boring. Plus, the first few bars of this song sound like the music from the castle levels of the first Mario game. It really is just a creepy, haunting dance tune and the repetition of the lyric “This is where the story ends,” seems really appropriate. The song never gets scary, but it is a kind of funhouse ride that I would love to see a short film set to.

I really can’t recommend this record enough for you guys. You can buy it on Amazon here .