Skip to main content

Culture Music

Noteworthy new or recent releases

Folk Music of China, Vol. 3: Folk Songs of Yunnan by Various artists: Apparently, the excerpts constituting most of this series’ first two installments were meant to condition listeners for the full-length performances by the Wa, the De-ang, and the Blang peoples herein.  Or maybe Volumes 1 and 2 were simply meant to tantalize.  Either way, the 11 minutes over which this volume’s “A De’ang Duet Love Song” droningly unfolds feel as intense as they do epic, with the layering of Sansuo and Yuxi Li’s vocals signaling the series’ concession to technological enhancement. Instruments make their first appearance too: The 48-second instrumental “Gu Gan” features an anonymous soloist playing the 10-centimeter, grain-stalk carved gugan di flute. Still, it’s the voices—piercing, unerring, mostly a cappella—that do the enthralling.

Resurrection by Kinky Friedman: Friedman’s no more a singer now than he was 45 years ago, when he was making uniquely American folk art out of being politically correct before being politically incorrect was cool. And, in terms of lyrics, there’s no more art among these songs than there was among those on last year’s Circus of Life. Even by the standards of sentimental liberalism, “Mandela’s Blues” and “Carryin’ the Torch” (about the Statue of Liberty) are predictable. There is, however, an increasingly ingratiating devil-may-care quality to his brand of C&W, one that not only grows with repeated listenings but also extends to the musicians, who, under the supervision of the Americana maestro Larry Campbell, are clearly having a good time.   

Love Letters: The Allen Toussaint Sessions by Aaron Neville: Most of these recordings—each written or produced by Allen Toussaint and cut by Aaron Neville between 1968 and 1977 for Bell, Mercury, and other labels with whom Toussaint’s Sansu Enterprises had struck mutually beneficial deals—have long been available on other compilations (Rounder’s The Classic Aaron Neville: My Greatest Gift, Music Avenue’s Mojo Soul, Charly’s Make Me Strong and Hercules, a couple on Hip-O’s Ultimate Collection). But never before have so many of them appeared in one place. And never again, except intermittently (with his brothers, with Linda Ronstadt), would Neville consistently find, or have found for him, material so well suited to his singular voice. Even the misbegotten “Tell It Like It Is” remake isn’t all that bad.

Who (Deluxe Edition) by The Who: Who is credited to “the Who” and not just to the more accurate “Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey” because it reflects Townshend and Daltrey’s genuine desire to make another (although “one last” is probably more like it) album worthy of the musical legacy that they created with Keith Moon and John Entwistle between 1965 and 1978. To that end, there are power chords, vocals, and synthesizers that echo past glories, and changes of pace beyond the reach of any Who tribute band. Chief among them: a Simon Townshend–penned folky shuffle (“Break the News”), a Pete Townshend Stevie Wonder impersonation (on harmonica, “I’ll Be Back”), and an anachronistic bonus track whose title, “Got Nothing to Prove,” is truer now than ever.

Share this article with friends.

Rich Fury/Getty

Rousing moments

“Sunday Service” Choir picks up with Jesus Is Born where it left off with Kanye West’s Jesus Is King

As he promised that he would in October, Kanye West released his second gospel album, Jesus Is Born (INC), on Christmas Day.

Maybe he noticed the second half of Psalm 15:4 and realized that he really should stop missing deadlines of his own making.

 Anyway, the implications of its title and release date notwithstanding, Jesus Is Born isn’t a Christmas album except in the broad Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season sense. In some ways, it isn’t a Kanye West album either, credited instead to the Jason White–directed Sunday Service Choir (or “Sunday Service,” as the ensemble is identified on the cover). West’s direct involvement is limited to his having served as the project’s executive producer (i.e., its money man) and to his having contributed two compositions that originally appeared on his 2016 album The Life of Pablo: “Ultralight Beam” and “Fade” (the latter of which undergoes gospelization on the Jesus Is Born song “Follow Me/Faith”).

And although West is listed as one of Jesus Is Born’s four producers, that fractional designation could indicate anything from significant sound shaping to almost no sound shaping at all. He doesn’t sing or rap either (at least nowhere near a hot mic). Instead, the spotlight stays focused on the dozens of “A-list” voices that White assembled at West’s request early last year and who have since gone on to become the most widely listened-to gospel choir in the world.

Those voices provided the most rousing moments on Jesus Is King, and they pick up right where they left off. After opening Jesus Is Born with an explosive rendition of Timothy Wright’s “Count Your Blessings” that turns an improvised, upwardly spiraling vocal from the original’s last 30 seconds into a climactic centerpiece, they downshift into a faithful rendition of Brenda Joyce Moore’s cascading “Perfect Praise” (retitled “Excellent”).

Such stylistic flexibility characterizes all of Jesus Is Born’s 84 minutes—a length, incidentally, that exceeds that of Jesus Is King the album and Jesus Is King the film put together. From that statistic alone, it seems reasonable to conclude that the sound of many minimally accompanied voices lifted in praise to his Lord and Savior, as opposed to the sound of one man rapping, is currently West’s favorite way of spreading his newfound faith—or at least of hearing that faith spread. 

Listening to Jesus Is Born, it’s easy to understand why.

Trace black-gospel music back far enough, and you’ll arrive at what are still known as “Negro spirituals”: songs sung by slaves as emotionally direct expressions of a genuine Christian faith or as coded metaphors for achieving earthly emancipation (or as some misery-alleviating combination of the two).

Albany Records’ compilation Sankofa: A Spiritual Reflection gathers performances of 20 spirituals from the albums Deep River (1995), Songs of America (2008), and Come Down Angels and Trouble the Water (2014) by the operatic bass-baritone, Oral Moses. (Yes, Oral Moses. Seriously, given the nature of what he does, and does well, could he have been more aptly named?) 

Like his predecessor Paul Robeson, whose stately recitals with Lawrence Brown did a lot to elevate spirituals into the classical realm, Moses is accompanied only by a pianist (Rosalyn Floyd on 13 selections, George Bailey on five, Ann Sears on two) and, on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a flautist. And although Moses’ repertoire is not exclusively traditional (“This Little Light of Mine” only dates back to the 1920s), the traditional predominates.

Hence the title Sankofa, a Ghanaian term that means “Go back and get it.” It’s an admonition that Moses has taken seriously. And, whether he knows it or not, so has Kanye West.


Share this article with friends.

New or recent releases

Thanks For The Dance

Leonard Cohen

It turns out that Cohen had one more album in him, or at least enough of one to enable his son Adam and a sympathetic coterie of background singers and musicians to turn it into something befitting his singular legacy. The sepulchral whispers, the poetic verbal economy, the intermingling of the sacred and the profane—everything that ever made Cohen fascinating is here. Most fascinating of all, he ends by imploring his fans not to listen to him anymore but to listen instead to “the mind of God.”

If You’re Going To The City: A Tribute To Mose Allison

Various artists

In an uncommon twist where tribute albums are concerned, most of these various artists are A-listers. Not that their status automatically grants them access to Allison’s sardonic paradoxes: The difference between those who come across as Allison admirers (Taj Mahal, Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde) and those who come across as Allison soul mates (John Chin and Richard Julian, Robbie Fulks, Loudon Wainwright III) is palpable. That being said, three cheers for Fiona Apple singing “Your Molecular Structure.” And Jackson Browne’s “If You Live” could delight Tonio K.

Three Chords & The Truth

Van Morrison

That the dark night of the soul (the title of Track 3) from which Morrison has emerged may have been of his own making does not diminish these performances. He hasn’t sung with this much je ne sais quoi since Into the Music. One explanation may be that he no longer smokes, another that his last four albums were palate-cleansing genre exercises. Whatever the reason, it’s nice to hear him recycling his favorite melodies and ideas for the purpose of bidding yet another period of transition farewell.


Jon Troast

First-time fatherhood has brought out the advice giver in this itinerant singer-songwriter. Although three of his latest five songs address his wife (including “Please Look Me in the Eye,” Troast’s most musically soulful statement to date), there’s an unmistakably paternal quality to “Leave Some of the Ends Loose” and “How the World Works.” The former contains Troast’s prescription for not finding oneself “all tied up in knots.” The latter adapts 1 Corinthians 12 to society at large and wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Mister Rogers.

Share this article with friends.