[Album Review]: Lee Fields – Emma Jean

LF_Emma-Jean_Cover-smaller “No man is an island, but you cast me off”

“This is a man’s world,” James Brown once posited, before clarifying “But, it wouldn’t be nothin’, nothin’, without a woman or a girl”. On his third album for Truth and Soul Records with The Expressions, it seems these words hang heavy over Lee Fields, a man once nicknamed “Little JB” for his vocal and physical resemblance to The Godfather of Soul. After toiling away in minor obscurity for the best part of fifty years, Fields builds on the acclaim of recent years and perhaps reveals something about himself on a record named Emma Jean for his mother, where hard times and breaking hearts abound.

Partly recorded and mixed in Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville, Emma Jean sees Fields moving at a slower, but more confident pace than previous. Rather than the kicking and screaming Fields found on Faithful Man (which featured in The Grapevine’s Best Albums of 2012), Emma Jean finds Fields settling comfortably into his role as an elder statesman of old-school R&B and reconnecting with his Southern roots on the smooth Tulsa soul of the late J.J. Cale’s ‘Magnolia’. While paying respect to the original, The Expressions trade wheezing harmonica for shimmering pedal steel and Fields’s resonant vocals lift this devotional to giddy heights. Similarly, the Dan Auerbach penned ‘Paralyze’ oozes with bluesy drama, while the reeling groove and gospel backing vocals of ‘In The Woods’ recalls the finest hours of Memphis’s Hi Records. Elsewhere though, Fields still excels in delivering hard-hitting funk, especially in the unadulterated foot-stompin’and hollerin’ of ‘Talk To Somebody’.

Throughout Emma Jean, Fields illustrates faltering relationships and the differing reactions of his male protagonists, ranging from bitterness and chest-beating to reconciliatory promises and torch carrying for lost love, which reach their peak in the closing pair ‘Stone Angel’ and ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Left abandoned and burned by the femme fatale of ‘Stone Angel’, Fields’s outward machismo is undermined by private promises of better times which ultimately fall away to the heartfelt petition of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Brought to his knees, Fields wails like a man with nothing left to lose as slinky guitar and building horn blasts conjure up the spirit of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home’, drawing Emma Jean to a triumphant close.

While the influences he channels into his work are plain to see, Lee Fields always keeps his best foot striding forward to somewhere innovative and new. And, at the age of 63, he may have delivered the finest album of his career. So far…

Emma Jean will be released through Truth and Soul Records on Monday 2nd June.

 

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[Cover Me]: Gil Scott-Heron, Nils Lofgren & The White Stripes

There are good covers, and there are bad covers. These are some I think belong in the former category.

Gil Scott-Heron – ‘Me and the Devil’ (Originally by Robert Johnson)
Appearing on his final album, I’m New Here, Gil-Scott Heron transposes Robert Johnson’s stark ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ from the haunting Mississippi delta of the 1930s to the ghostly concrete structures of 21st century New York, trading six strings for brooding synths. As an artist who had only just returned to recording following sixteen years of multiple incarcerations and crippling addiction, the malevolent atmosphere and strained vocals on the track reflect that Scott-Heron knew his devils all too well.

Nils Lofgren – ‘Like a Hurricane’ (Originally by Neil Young)
As Neil Young readies to release A Letter Home, a covers album including songs by Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson and Bert Jansch which chimed personally with Young, it seems appropriate to post a cover by sometime Crazy Horse member and current E Streeter, Nils Lofgren. Over nearly fifty years in music working with some of the 20th century’s defining musicians, Lofgren has proved himself to be rock’s most gymnastic guitarist, both in technique and on-stage antics. In this extended take from his own cover album of Neil Young songs, The Loner: Nils Sings Neil, Lofgren strips down the howling pain of Young’s electric original into a plaintive acoustic tearjerker with him soloing at his spellbinding best.

The White Stripes – ‘Baby Blue’ (Originally by Gene Vincent)
The White Stripes were never averse to taking old blues and injecting them with some garage-punk adrenaline, and here they crank up Gene Vincent’s slice of rock n’ roll gold to deliver a spine-tingling rendition in one of John Peel’s legendary sessions.

[Cheap and Cheerful]: Propaganda

propaganda“You searching for new mountains to climb as if you conquered the first one / You ain’t done, you just comfy”

What’s better than discovering great music? Discovering it’s free as well. Cheap and Cheerful intermittently throws free downloads your way for continued listening pleasure that doesn’t break the bank.

How many times have you heard this story? Young turk overcomes the gang culture inherent in his hometown through gaining a reputation as a ferocious battle rapper before coming to prominence as part of an influential rap collective. While this is undoubtedly a major part of Propaganda’s career, who joined L.A. mega-crew The Tunnel Rats as its youngest member, it only tells half of his story. Born Jason Petty to a Vietnam veteran father involved with The Black Panther Party, Props grew up steeped in the Latino culture of a violent neighbourhood before becoming a classroom teacher and community service leader. While cutting his teeth rapping he started frequenting spoken word poetry nights and was struck by the lyrical complexity and captivating directness poetry had over the rapping of his colleagues. He quickly became a regular performer at open mic poetry night A Mic & Dim Lights and used poetry and his love of folk music to hone his raps into intelligent social commentaries. This complex mix of influences evident in his music has lead to him becoming a highly respected artist in the L.A. underground scene, opening for KRS-One and De La Soul, and can best be heard on his recent fourth album Crimson Cord.

Over dark beats which owe a debt to Radiohead and Explosions In The Sky as much as to hip-hop, Propaganda delivers fiery attention-grabbing missives that bring Saul Williams and Michael Franti to mind. Given his widespread influences and experiences it’s no surprise that Props touches on diverse issues of faith, race and identity over Crimson Cord. ‘Bored of Education’ dissects education systems that fail its students while ‘I Don’t See It’ is an open letter against complacency. In his thought-provoking commentaries Props is as rigorous on his own preconceptions as those of others, and on ‘Three Cord Bond’ he analyses his own past prejudices and offers an open-eyed message of racial unity. The album ends with ‘Tell Me Yours’, an autobiography in under four minutes where Props gives dedications to all his decisive life influences and challenges you to share your story with him. An appropriate close for an artist who stresses strength through unity and challenging the received notions that come blaring out of every socket in the modern world: This is his truth, now you tell him yours.

Crimson Cord is out now through Humble Beast and is available for free download here.

[Album Review]: Nick Mulvey – First Mind

Nick-Mulvey-640x503“Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me, / She takes me back down the vistas of my years”

After splitting from Mercury-nominated modern jazz collective Portico Quartet in 2011, Nick Mulvey’s solo career has gone from strength to strength. His dextrous musicality and yearning songwriting over two EPs have seen him hotly tipped by appearances on BBC’s Sound of 2014 longlist and tours with Laura Marling (not to mention being featured on this site last year). On his debut full-length First Mind, Mulvey stakes his claim with a softly-spoken meditative work.

Informed by his experiences touring the world over a decade and studying music in Havana and London, Mulvey’s songs blend western and world music influences into a distinct musical voice. ‘Juramidam’s driving polyrhythmic guitar figure echoes African rhythms while the lilting strumming of ‘Meet Me There’ belies more Celtic leanings. While Mulvey’s guitar and laconic vocals hold centre stage, understated accompaniments of percussion, synths and strings breathe life into his compositions. Murmuring background noises give ‘April’ the eerie air of a ghost story and strings add drama to uplifting ballad ‘Fever To The Form’, indicating that Mulvey’s strength lies in creating atmospheric melodies that pull you in.

Although seven of the twelve tracks on offer here have appeared previously as singles or EP tracks, First Mind is artfully weaved together into a gentle, consistent whole. Having said that, many of these tracks are different versions to the ones previously available and suggests that Mulvey is something of a perfectionist. Not necessarily a bad trait for an artist to have, but some of the revisions here rein in the infectious eagerness of the originals, leaving them slightly anaemic. Mulvey’s restrained vocals can also occasionally fail to push the songs to their potential heights; floating inches off the ground, but not quite soaring.

What his vocals can lack in strength and resonance though, is made up for by the swirling imagery he delivers in his lyrics. Pastoral images of plants and waterways suffuse First Mind and eddy around human relationships, as on ‘Ailsa Craig’: ‘I know you know the rushes call me on with words that you said, tying me down to the river bed’. The shifting perspectives and cyclical nature of D.H. Lawrence inspired ‘Cucurucu’ are as intriguing as the song’s hook is catchy, but Mulvey is equally comfortable speaking directly on Dylanesque ballad ‘I Don’t Want To Go Home’.

First Mind may initially wash over the listener, but it rewards repeated listens and marks Mulvey out as not your average minstrel. A slowburning delight for long summer nights of contemplation, leading through to greeting the early morning sun.

First Mind is available now through Fiction and Nick Mulvey will embark on a world tour this summer.

 

Names change, but the song remains the same.

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Hi, my name is James and I’m the writer over here at The Grapevine.

Those of you who are regulars to the site may have noticed a few changes around here, not least of all a name change in the banner at the top, and a few of you may be wondering why all the changes?

Well, when I started this blog it was as a hobby alongside my degree. I was never particularly happy with the name The Sun Also Rises, but I chose it for want of a better name and because a friend gave me a much needed boot to just pick a name and get posting (they know who they are). I liked the way those words sounded together and it was a small reminder why I write about music: because music is pretty much the reason I get out of bed every morning.

A lot has changed in my life since I started writing here, I graduated and I now write freelance for Kerrang! magazine and edit over at Hercules Moments. I wanted to give the site an overhaul to reflect these changes and so that meant choosing a name I was happy with. Hence, The Grapevine. Clichéd possibly, but I want this site to be the place where YOU come to find new music and discover old gems that you come to love.

As for normal site running, updates will be weekly on Fridays with occasional extra posts earlier in the week when my work load allows. I’ll still be bringing you the best in old and new music and I hope you guys enjoy the ride. If there is anything you want to see more of then please let me know in the comments below, or get in touch via email or twitter. Music is for sharing, and I’d love for you to tell me about the music that makes you get up in the morning.

Welcome to The Grapevine.