R&B

Paradise – Con Brio

 

Release Year: 2016

Rating: 8.5/10

I learned about this funky band when I went to Lollapalooza this year and caught their set. I’ve been singing their praises ever since. Based out of California, Con Brio, which means “with spirit” in Spanish, is a funk/R&B/soul band that are all about loving life and having a good time. They channel this feeling into their funky debut album Paradise. From start to finish the album keeps you going and leaves you with a big smile on your face. After hearing the record, you’ll be convinced Con Brio is the next great band in music.

The album is a funky jam from start to finish. Each song is filled with brassy horns, groovy bass, and hot guitar licks. “Paradise” kicks things off on a slow note. The guitar riff rips into the track inviting listeners on this musical journey. The horns come in one by one to beef up the sound completing the bluesy vibe. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any hotter, Ziek McCarter’s passionate vocals hit you. After one verse you’re ready to fly with him to what he calls paradise. From there, everything is a party. “Liftoff” is the epitome of funky. As soon as the opening note plays, it gets you grooving. It’s so upbeat and energetic, you’re ready to party like it’s a Friday night. And you can’t help but smile as McCarter here sings “Because nothing here can hold our spirits down.”

Even though most of the songs are funky, “You Think This is a Game?” is a bit different. It still has that funky groove and bluesy mood, but McCarter has a spoken word style. The way he raps over the music makes it seem like he’s at a slam poetry contest. It’s a bit jarring, especially when all the music clashes at the end, but it’s an interesting sonic experiment. Aside from getting down and grooving to the beat, Con Brio’s music is uplifting. Many of their songs spout positive messages about loving yourself and loving each other, something that’s easy to forget during these times.

Free & Brave” offers a comment on society and the Black Lives Matter movement. The opening verse references the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Martin Luther King, making you think it’s going to be a negative outlook on the world. Instead, Con Brio uses the song to say people have to keep going despite these tragic events. The message of the entire song is though the world gets shitty, we’re still free and in control of our destiny. We still have to believe that things will get better. The band gets harder and heavier on “Hard Times.” This fusion of rock and funk has a message of sticking together and reaching out to one another to get through hard times. It’s a great reminder that we still need each other even when everything looks bleak. It’s a reminder that we don’t have to go through this alone.

Another song with an optimistic message and my personal favorite is “Money.” Not only is it upbeat, funky, and made for dancing, it’s about not letting money rule you. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in work and focusing on making money to live. With this song McCarter reminds us it’s not all about work; we need play time too. He also sings “When you’re stretched out, all stressed out/Knowin somethin ain’t right, and you’re left out/Can’t let that 9-5, put a seatbelt on my mind.” It’s a great message to those who aren’t satisfied with working any old job and want to follow their dreams for the career they really want. Money is necessary, but we don’t have to let it take us over as Con Brio reminds us.

When they’re not grooving or spouting good life messages, Con Brio are romancing listeners with their sexy slow jams. “My Love” is a soulful gem made for romantic nights. Though it’s a little too slow for my tastes, it’s a good song and doesn’t hold back on the funky music. The same goes for the mid-tempo “No Limits,” which is slinky and slick. Both songs do a great job showing off McCarter’s vocals. There’s no doubt he’ll bring up comparisons to Michael Jackson, but his voice is still powerful enough to give you chills. And when he busts out the falsetto, it’s enough to make you swoon. He has one of those voices where when he’s feeling a song, he goes all the way making you screaming “Sing it, baby!” “Honey” is another soft, mid-tempo jam where McCarter spreads the love. The acoustic guitar and McCarter’s gentles vocals make the song relaxing and soothing. Some lyrics like “You can be such a busy bee, but save a little honey for me/I can be such a busy bee, but I’ll save my honey for thee/We can both be the busy bee and save a lil honey while we,” are kind of cheesy, but they’re forgivable. It’s still a sweet, sentimental track.

If you need an album to kick up your feet and unwind to, then this is it. Every one of Con Brio’s songs are filled with positive messages about loving life, yourself, and not letting the small stuff get you down. The entire album is full of optimistic messages, which we all need every now and then. The music is fun, upbeat, and will keep you dancing. Something about their music is so infectious even if you’re not the biggest fan of funk and soul. With their passionate playing and Ziek McCarter’s seductive, soaring vocals the band stand out as one of a kind. Put on Paradise when you need a pick me up or just want to dance. Let the music wash over you and let Con Brio’s songs take you to your own version of paradise.

H2O – Hall and Oates

Release Year: 1982

Rating: 7.5/10

Hall and Oates are a musical act I’ve grown to love over the years. I’ve always liked their hit singles, but I’ve grown to respect their contributions to music. And lately, I’ve been in a Hall and Oates mood. In the past two weeks, I watched all their videos online, saw countless interviews, and watched their Behind the Music special. I’ve covered Big Bam Boom, probably their biggest album, already so I wanted to look at another one of their successful records. This time, let’s look at the duo’s eleventh album H2O.

The album opens with one of their best singles “Maneater.” That slick opening beat, hot sax riff, and lyrics about a woman whose dangerous yet tempting, makes this one of their coolest songs. It’s dangerous yet sensual as the music slowly builds up and Hall begins singing about this “maneater.” It’s pop meshed with soul for that “Motown groove” making it so irresistible. Though the song sounds like it’s about a vicious woman, the duo said it was inspired by the greed and lust of New York in the 80’s. Years later, it’s still one of their best songs and a great example of what makes the duo so talented.

The next track “Crime Pays” is kind of weird, but fun to listen to. It’s pretty much their disco song. It has a funky groove, glistening keys, and an upbeat dance vibe that’s meant to get you moving. The music is the most notable thing about the song. It’s not as memorable or as interesting as the other tracks, but it still puts you in a good mood. It’s a quirky moment from the duo before they go back to laying out the catchy, ear worm jams. While “Guessing Games” and “Delayed Reaction” aren’t bad, they’re kind of typical for the band. Both are pretty straightforward pop songs, with the latter having a catchier, if not, simpler hook. The former is kind of dull. These songs don’t cause much of a reaction; maybe just a subtle nod of the head at times.

Daryl Hall constantly talks about growing up in Philadelphia and being influenced by soul and R&B music. These influences come out best on this album, especially on tracks like “Art of Heartbreak.” Though the song is about being a heartbreaker, the song sounds sleek and sexy with the opening dirty blues riff and Hall’s crooning vocals. For an extra air of cool, the hot sax makes a return for a sensuous groove. It’s an underrated Hall and Oates gem that lets them get in touch with the soul sound that launched their career. The R&B sound returns on the lukewarm “Open All Night.” It’s not a terrible song, but compared to the other tracks it doesn’t stand out. It’s a slow song about finding out a lover’s infidelity. It’s not bad, just a bit generic.

The album also includes hits “One on One” and “Family Man.” The former takes a bit to grow on you, but once it does, it never lets go. The soothing opening keys and Hall’s falsetto makes it sound like a lounge song from the 70s. And if you’re not used to Hall hitting those high notes, it comes off a little weird, but soon enough you’ll be singing “Whoooa, one on one/I wanna play that game tonight/One on one I know” with him. It’s a slow jam about getting some face time with your lover. To make sure you get in the mood, the sax comes in during the bridge adding a suave vibe to the song. It’s a Hall and Oates classic that never seems to get much attention.

Family Man” is actually a Mike Oldfield cover about a man being proposition by a prostitute. He resists by screaming “Leave me alone/I’m a family man!” The song has a rock vibe with beefy guitars with some weird muted music making it sound like they’re in the middle of a jungle for a moment of the song. What makes the Hall and Oates version stand out is how Hall’s vocals get more intense near the end, showing how this “family man” is about to lose it. And it has a hook that lodges itself in your head. I woke up one day with the hook repeating in my head. No joke.

Though the album is mostly solid, there are some real stinkers. And unfortunately, they’re both written by John Oates. “Italian Girls” is a throwaway track filled with Italian stereotypes while Oates sings “Where are the Italian girls?” It’s so upbeat and generic it almost plays like a comedy song from the 80s. Instead, it’s stuck on the tail end of the album bringing down the second half. The following track “At Tension” doesn’t sound cheesy, but it’s so unfitting. Oates’ back on vocals singing about war and the military. It’s out of place because most of the songs are about relationships. It’s also drawn out, slow, and boring making it a song you can’t wait to be over. Luckily, the end of the album is saved by the catchy slow jam, “Go Solo,” which finds Hall rightfully back on vocal duty.

H2O is just one of the numerous hit albums for this duo. Though it’s not as upbeat and fun as Big Bam Boom, it’s a solid record. Most of the songs are memorable and have that classic Hall and Oates touch that makes their music so irresistible. What I appreciate about the record is how it shows off more of their soul and R&B influences, which isn’t always easy to hear on tracks like “Out of Touch.” And if you needed proof that Daryl Hall is a stellar vocalist look no further than this album. He has an impressive range and his soulful crooning is like no other. There’s some filler along with flat out bad songs, but the album is enjoyable. If you have a Hall and Oates that needs scratching, this album will be your satisfaction.

Bedtime Stories – Madonna

Release Year: 1994

Rating: 8.5/10

The mid-90s were a rough time for Madonna. She received a public backlash after the release of her controversial book Sex and companion album Erotica. She decided to tone down her image with this album. Instead of having tongue in cheek lyrics about the joys of sex, she remains down to earth and even gets personal on a couple of the songs. The shift away from the explicit and the new musical direction makes this her most compelling release.

What’s interesting about the album is the title. With a name like Bedtime Stories and the image of her laying on a bed looking gorgeous makes you think she’s up to her old sexual tricks. But there’s actually nothing explicit on the record itself. The closest it gets is on “Inside of Me.” Not only does the title sound sexual, but the song begins with Madonna moaning and she sings breathlessly. But one look at the lyrics show this is actually about not being able to let go of a lover: “I will always have you, inside of me/Even though you’re gone/Love still carries on.” It seems to be based on a personal experience since she mentions how she tries to look happy in the public eye.

Another track where she gets personal is “Survival.” On this catchy song Madonna notes how she’ll never be an angel or a saint, which seems to be a response to how the public viewed her. The song is kind of simple and repetitive, but it seems to be saying she’s just trying to do what she can to get by. Though the singer did indeed tone things down for this record on “Human Nature” shows she’s still a badass. This has always been one of my favorite songs because she’s fierce and kicks ass. It’s actually a response to the media that lambasted her. She’s basically saying she’s not sorry for her past behavior and she has no regrets. It’s all about expressing yourself and not holding back (hmmm sounds like another one of her songs). It’s a great song that shows Madonna is not a pushover.

Aside from the lack of controversy surrounding this album, another thing that’s interesting about it is the musical direction. Her previous efforts focused on her dance-pop centered sound. Here, the music takes influence from R&B and New Jack Swing, which can be heard on almost all the tracks. “Love Tried to Welcome Me” may begin with swelling strings, but it eventually leads into an R&B groove. This same groove can be found on “Don’t Stop” and the sensual “Forbidden Love.” “I’d Rather Be Your Lover” has this sleepy, dragging groove to it that’s mixed with some hip hop flavor. There’s even a rap by Meshell Ndegeocello during the bridge. It’s not until the last two tracks that we depart from the R&B sound.

Bedtime Story” is a weird track that has more of an electronic sound and feel. It’s no surprise that Bjork was one of the song’s writers. It’s very ambient with lots of different noises swirling around your head. On the surface, it seems to be about the joys of the unconscious realm, but there have been several write-ups claiming it goes deeper than that. It’s a bit too complicated to get into here, so I’ll leave the link to the Wikipedia page. “Take a Bow,” on the other hand, is classic Madonna all the way. It has that sweet, soft, pretty music that sets up the sad mood. What’s clever about this track is the running motif that compares this relationship to a play. She actually sounds heartbroken; she knows it’s time to say goodbye. Listening to the whole thing again will almost bring you to tears. It’s amazing how it still resonates after all these years.

The album overall is pretty mellow. There are the standard Madonna ballads, but the other tracks are related to R&B and hip hop instead of her typical dance music. It’s yet another reinvention for the singer and one that works quite well. If anything these songs show that Madonna doesn’t rely on controversy and sexual tricks to be successful. She’s talented enough to tone things down and look at her own life for influence. The songs may not be explicit, but her attitude and apologetic nature still makes this a classic Madonna album.

Guero – Beck

Release Year: 2005

Rating: 8/10

It seems like every few years Beck has a major album that critics can’t praise enough. Guero was definitely one of those albums. Maybe it’s because it has some of his most accessible songs for a wider audience. Maybe it was the return to his Odelay like sound that made it so popular. Or maybe it’s because he’s just good. Whatever the reason, this is a great album from Beck full of the weird, catchy songs we come to expect from the quirky artist.

Beck always makes songs you can’t seem to pick apart. His lyrics seem like he’s just stringing random things together that sound cool. But what always stands out is the music, which is the highlight for just about all of the songs. The opening track “E-Pro” is insanely catchy with its dirty riff taking over much of the song. Beck mumbles his way through the lyrics until the simple hook of “Na-na/na-na-na-na/na-na,” which is irresistible. It’s a really fun song that’s just cool in general.

Girl” is probably the most accessible song on the album. It begins with a simple chiptune that’s so adorable and happy sounding. Then it moves on to some upbeat acoustic guitar music while Beck sings about his “sun eyed girl.” It seems like a nice love song until you notice lyrics like “And I know I’m gonna make her die.” Not sure if he meant this literally (I hope not), but it still sounds kind of morbid. “Hell Yes” has always been one of my favorites on the LP. With the chirping beeps, frenetic music, and robotic voice saying “Hell Yes” the song is a futuristic blend of electronica and funk music. With Beck rapping, it’s one of those oddly catchy songs you can’t help but groove to.

What makes Beck albums so different is the first time you hear them you never know what you’re going to get from each song. There’s never a straightforward clue as to which direction the music is going. One minute he’s doing something hip-hop and Latin inspired like “Que Onda Guero” but by the next track he’s moved on to jangly country western like on “Farewell Ride.” And it’s this willingness to play and mix with different genres that makes this album so fun. He plays around with thumping hip-hop beats on “Earthquake Weather” and he pulls off some smooth R&B on the slick “Go It Alone.” Fun fact: Jack White provides the cool bass groove on this track. He even goes psychedelic on the vintage sounding “Rental Car” which harkens to rock songs of the 60s. Beck is one of those few artists that plays around with so many styles on one album, yet it never feels disoriented or jumbled.

A downfall of the album is the length of most of the songs. It’s strange because most of them are only about five minutes, but when you’re listening to them, they feel a lot longer. Part of the issue for me is on songs like “Black Tambourine” or “Scarecrow,” both of which are pretty awesome, but there’s a point on each where it feels like the song should end. You expect it to, but then it just keeps going either repeating the main riff or the same lyrics. I found by the end of most of the songs, I was bored and ready to move on. It also doesn’t help that there are slow moving tracks like “Broken Drum,” which is great, but travels at a snails pace. It felt like the song was trying to put me to sleep. After a while, I just wanted the album to end so I could move on to something else.

This album is definitely one of the highlights of Beck’s extensive catalog. Not only is it a return to his older sound, the songs are just good. It’s an awesome mix of simplistic and weird and even though he plays around with various styles the album is never disjointed. Some of the songs are filler and feel a lot longer than they are, but most of them are spot on. Beck has always been great at making weird, wacky songs and this album is no different.

Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

Release Year: 1989

Rating: 7.5/10

When she started her career, critics tried to lump Janet Jackson with pop singers, like Whitney Houston and Madonna. Wanting to show the world she wasn’t your average diva, Jackson took on a bold concept for her fourth album. Though fans, critics, and her record company didn’t initially know where she was going with a socially conscious message, Rhythm Nation ended up being one of her most successful albums. While it’s not perfect it still remains the essential Janet Jackson record and one that pulled her from under her big brother‘s shadow.

For this record, Jackson wanted more control over her music and she decided to go with a concept album addressing several socially conscious themes. But rather than have the songs be boring, Jackson aimed to blend these messages with the dance music she loves. This is heard loud and clear on the intense title track. With lots of banging and clanging sounds, taken from industrial, mixed with pop, R&B, and a bit of rock, the singer calls for racial harmony while expressing her love of dance. It’s still one of the best tracks on the LP and one of her most intense overall. Just from listening to it, you can’t help but think of the military stylized video that was so popular on MTV. The whole thing has this rough, raw vibe to it and with a cry for social change, its message can still be applied today.

State of the World” continues the theme with funky new jack swing music and R&B that gets you moving, even though the lyrics are a little bleak. While the song focuses on homelessness, Jackson tries to optimistic by singing “Let’s weather the storm together.” Though it doesn’t grab your attention like the previous track, the music is still fun and upbeat. Listeners may be thrown off when hearing references to teen pregnancy in a dance song, but at least she attempted to be socially conscious without sounding boring or self righteous. “The Knowledge” is about the importance of education and learning how to read. Though at times it sounds like an after school PSA, it has good intent and Jackson’s spoken word style makes the song stand out.

There’s nothing wrong with musicians wanting their songs to be about something important, but the problem most of them run into is the messages grow tired, dull, and repetitive over the span of 40 minutes. Jackson avoids this by throwing in some feel good numbers that makes you forget how shitty the world is for a little while. “Miss You Much” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” both celebrate finding the one person that makes your heart go crazy. Both songs are catchy as hell and really upbeat. Though they are more on the pop side, they maintain some of the hard hitting, mechanical sounds found on previous tracks. “Escapade,” my favorite, is the ultimate feel good song. It’s about letting loose, leaving your worries behind, and just having a good time before life hits you in the face. What’s interesting is the opening riff, which is bright and steeped in power pop, sounds similar to Prince’s “1999.” It may not be intentional, but it’s something I noticed while listening to it.

Black Cat” is another great song on the album and one that emphasizes Jackson’s sexual energy. Even though the song is about acid abuse, it’s the sexy, sick guitar riff that wraps around you, luring you in. It definitely has a hard rock sound and Jackson even puts a bit more edge in her voice to complete the mood. In terms of the music and the overall vibe, it reminds me of something Joan Jett would do. Just listening to it makes you feel like the sexiest badass to walk into the bar, or the park if that’s where you are when you hear it.

While Jackson does return to the conscious theme one more time on the slow “Livin’ In A World They Didn’t Make,” the rest of the album is full of ballads. “Lonely,” “Come Back to Me,” and “Someday is Tonight” all deal with love, either lost or found, and all drag out so long you get bored by it. None of them are terrible, but compared to the other tracks on the album, they’re not exciting or even memorable. If anything, they show off Jackson’s sensual, sexual side she would emphasize later in her career. They all kind of sound the same as well. It’s just weird that an album that begins with something energetic an as fierce as “Rhythm Nation” ends on such a slow, boring note as “Someday is Tonight.” If you’re into slow jams then maybe you won’t find a problem with it, but it was too much for my tastes.

Even if the album isn’t flawless, you have to admire Jackson for the conceit.  She wanted songs that made people think about the world we live in, but still make them appealing to her fans. By mixing in her love of dance music with socially conscious ideas, she manged to make songs that were interesting and thought provoking. Sometimes artists who want to talk about issues plaguing the world do it in the most dull or self-righteous manner. Jackson never strays into that territory and even realized listeners don’t want to be bombarded with depressing reality for 40 minutes. After all, not every aspect of life is terrible.