Juls – Slow Down (feat. Agent Sasco)

With summer going by so fast and me not being able to keep up the In My Ear posting activity, I’m going to keep it extra short this week and just hit you with a sweet little song — perfect for your next backyard hang, beach picnic, or golden hour windows-down cruise.

I’m new to both of these artists: Juls, a London-based, Ghanian-born artist and one of the foremost afrobeat and afropop producers and Agent Sasco, a big-time Jamaican dancehall deejay and reggae artist.

Slow Down is just one of a number of great tracks off Juls’ latest album Colour, which is well worth your time checking out in its entirety. But, right now, as we hit the final quarter pole of summer, the title and vibe of this particular song feel just right.

Facebook | Instagram | Apple Music | Spotify

Black Pumas – Black Moon Rising

My new favorite band. Your new favorite band. Black Pumas is the stuff of legend. Grammy-award producer meets talented street busker; they hang; make some music; magic happens; and – bam – they’re catch fire and you can’t get their shit out of your brain. Which is fantastic because they are legit and awesome.

Black Moon Rising, the lead single off their debut self-titled album released a couple of weeks ago, is just one of a host of golden tracks.

As other commenters have noted, Black Pumas doesn’t stay in the retro-soul box you want to put them in on first listen. The record spills over the side with modern production flashes, drum loops, and fresh-sounding guitar and keyboard licks. While they command their own unique sound that merges classic soul, gritty rock, and vintage-era funk, there are hints of current influences from Dan Auerbach, to Danger Mouse, and even Khruangbin.

Black Pumas is having a moment. And, we’re all better for it.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Apple Music | Spotify

Kate Tempest – Holy Elixir

Kate Tempest’s new record The Book of Traps and Lessons feels like one of the most important artistic and political statements out in the ether today.

Not one to shy away from tough topics or fear speaking her peace or shirk the weight of a storyteller’s responsibility to hold good and evil, truth and falsehoods in close companionship, Tempest focuses her angst, intellect, philosophizing, and fury on everything that — in the quiet moments of the day or night — unsettles you too. Rising authoritarianism. Massive economic and social inequity. The foreboding of feeling trapped in a system you don’t have access to or even a handle on. Humanity outpacing the world’s resources. Climate change. An age of technological advancement and social disconnect. The sense that things are deeply, fundamentally flawed.

Aching legs, pounding head
I can’t wait for the weekend
I’m staying in bed
In the mouth of a breaking wave
In the mouth of a breaking storm
Shaken, thinking something is coming
The sky’s an unusual colour
The weather is doing unusual things
And our leaders aren’t even pretending not to be demons
So where is the good heart to go but inwards?
Why not lock all the doors and bolt all the windows?
All I am are my doubts and suspicions
I against you against we against them
This is how it begins
And this is how it will end.

~Three Sided Coin

As I listen to this record, I am in awe of how much Tempest’s sharp poetry and intricate wordplay speak to that part of me — deep inside my head and in my gut — that wrestles with the great questions of our time. I relish in the places this record takes me because it feels like I am engaged in a dialogue at the root of things. How do we make it through all of this?

Holy Elixir is a standout track for me because it displays Tempest’s expansive imagery, the complexity and directness of her poetry, and the musicianship that deepens the impact of her words. She levels-up her patented blend of spoken-word/hip-hop fusion, creating a pulsating, atmospheric soundtrack with rich, dank electronic beats and stripped-down, piano and string arrangements.

There are no answers here. But, Tempest’s way of articulating her own questions and of naming what we are facing feels galvanizing. I am not buried in despair; not buoyed by hope. Rather, I am steeled for the fight. And, for joining in common cause with those who listen to this album and nod their heads to the rhythms and the rhymes of an artist who is looking behind the curtain of the world around us.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Soundcloud | Apple Music | Spotify

Santana – Batonga / Bembele (feat. Buika)

50 years ago (good lord), Carols Santana played Woodstock and launched himself and his band into the stratosphere. Now, at age 71 and with 24 previous albums under his belt, he’s released his latest record, Africa Speaks — and it is crazy good.

While I deeply respect Santana for his passion and his absolute commitment to a life consumed by music, art, and spiritualism, I am like many who have struggled to keep pace with his output and his explorations. Some hits; mostly misses for me over the years. I know that he pays no mind to critics (nor should he) or to popular appeal (financially and on account of on his “legend” status, he doesn’t have to). He’s operating at a different level and with a different calling. In a recent interview with NPR, he says:

Everything’s new to me, with purity and innocence. Every second. It’s all in how your heart perceives things, to create fresh, new. But you must have a consistent thirst to remain with innocence.

Thankfully, this time out, that thirst and unbounded creativity resulted in Africa Speaks–a dynamic, potent, sonically diverse, pulsating record. The tone of Santana’s guitar is as piercing and fiery as ever; his riffs, crisp and clean; his solos, as shredding. But, it all takes on new life and energy when set against the “sounds, rhythms, and melodies of Africa,” the self-described and apparently intentionally big tent theme of the record.

Santana’s guitar chops and compositions aside, my personal appreciation and love for this album rest largely in that African musical palette he is drawing from. And, more specifically, from African music delivered and given voice as it is on the record by singer Buika, especially on the standout tracks Batonga and Bembele featured here. Born and raised on the Spanish island of Mallorca, as the child of African immigrants, María Concepción Balboa Buika (known as Concha Buika or Buika) is a force of nature. A seasoned veteran singer with a dedicated following, Buika features on vocals for all 11 tracks–singing in Spanish, English, and Yoruba with an intensity, power, and authenticity without which Santana’s admittedly respectful and purposeful homage to the continent might resonate less.

The combination of these two artists and the production talents of Rick Rubin is pure magic. Africa Speaks has to stand as one of Carlos Santana’s best records in years and, to me, near the top of his ever-growing, diverse catalogue.

Website | Facebook | YouTube | Apple Music | Spotify

Feature Photo: Maryanne Bilham

Free Nationals (feat. Mac Miller and Kali Uchis) – Time

Free Nationals released this track today and, um….there was no way I was going to post about anything else. Free Nationals (Anderson .Paak’s backing band and one of the best live soul/funk/R&B groups on the planet right now) + Kali Uchis (my top “I’m-not-a-huge-fan-of-pop-radio-R&B-but-I-love-her” female vocalist) + Mac Miller (his first posthumous release) = Awesomeness.

Even if it sounded bad I was going to tune into this track. But, of course, it sounds fantastic. Melodically tight out of the gate, with Kali Uchis singing the chorus backed by a strummed acoustic guitar, and then picking up 30 seconds in with a Free Nationals / Kelsey Gonzalez classic, butter-smooth, on-the-one bass line.

That bass groove drives the song forward, accented by glittering synth, electric guitar, and trumpet riffs and graced at the top with Uchis’s layered, slightly ethereal vocals. It cruises along at a steady, head-nodding clip…and then Mac Miller tucks in with his verse.

Man, I miss Mac Miller. I was oddly affected by his passing (which I wrote about last September) and so I feel conflicted hearing his familiar, distinctively raspy voice again. Happy to be vibing along to his vocals and amazing flow again, even as I know he’s no longer here and I’m listening to a single moment frozen in time. He raps:

“Look at me watering seeds, it’s time to grow / I get out of control when I’m alone”

Damn, Mac.

I found myself wondering how it must be for his family and close friends; the courage it must take them to allow Free Nationals to release this song with the subject matter of letting go of love, which is guaranteed to feel haunting and sad for them even as it is likely what he would have wanted and keeps his memory and legacy alive for the rest of us. Respect.

After another chorus and verse by Kali Uchis, the track shifts keys and winds down with horns and a warped fade. Front-to-back, this track is just one smooth, effortless, R&B groove. You don’t so much listen as you sink into it.

Facebook | Website | Spotify

Mannequin Pussy – Drunk II

Spotify’s data indicates that this song has been streamed 337,702 since it’s release about a month ago. I account for a significant percentage of that total because Drunk II has been repeatedly blasted at full-volume in my car, in my earbuds, in my spouse’s Bose Quiet Comfort noise-canceling headphones (shameless plug; I love them), and into my poor, throbbing ear drums.

I’m new to Mannequin Pussy, a Philadelphia-based punk band formed in 2013 and set to release their third full-length album this month, June 21, titled Patience. Drunk II is the lead single off the record. The band has earned a reputation for raw, raging music that can deliver tightly-crafted, melodic hooks in the midst of the sound-and-fury of blistering, thrashing punk rock.

Similarly, their lyrics are as intimate and vulnerable as they are defiant. Like on Drunk II, (which, is simply a brilliant break-up track), when lead singer Marisa Dabice rages “I still love you, you stupid fuck” before the plaintive chorus, “And everyone says to me / ‘Missy you’re so strong’ / But what if I don’t want to be.”

This song’s crisp production and tight blend of power and fragility is compelling as hell.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Soundcloud | Bandcamp | Apple Music | Spotify

Feature Photo: Marcus Maddox

IDER — Mirror

Take the best of 80s pop hits (bright melodies, lots of keyboards, simple synth beats with crashing background effects), add two perfectly tuned and matched female lead vocals, and a dash of modern lyrics….and you’ve got yourself some IDER.

I first fell for IDER in 2017 when they initially released their quiet, elegant single Body Love. Now that single helps to anchor their debut album Emotional Education, due out in July and led off by the equally fabulous track Mirror.

IDER is in fact Lily Somerville and Megan Markwick, university friends and now flatmates in London whose voices were clearly fated to harmonize together. Their sometimes dreamy, sometimes power pop songs are characterized by hooky melodies, introspective lyrics, and gorgeous, gorgeous singing. Haim is an easy current-day reference, with throwback influences of Kylie Minogue/Belinda Carlisle-style 80s pop — but brushed up and muscled out with layered production and Somerville and Markwick’s much richer, soaring, multi-tonal voices.

Mirror is a great showcase of their distinct sound and thematic lyrical focus on self and identity. The track pulls you in and carries along beautifully through two verses and a chorus before absolutely taking off at 2:14. If you’re fist isn’t even slightly raised in the air by the end of the track — you need to go back and listen to it again.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Soundcloud | Apple Music | Spotify

Rodrigo y Gabriela — Witness Tree

Hands down, one of my favorite groups (and live performers), guitar gods Rodrigo y Gabriela released a new album, Mettavolution a few weeks ago — their first studio album in five years. I’m swooning…and not just because my awesome better half bought me the record on vinyl for my birthday.

No, I’m swooning because it’s another stellar, compelling release from these two artists who continue to defy logic (Mexican classical guitar duo, steeped equally in flamenco and Metallica, get their big break busking in Dublin, Ireland); industry norms (a genre-defying acoustic guitar duo successfully selling records and selling out concert venues); and, frankly, physiology (I’m not sure how their hands and fingers move fast enough to play how they play).

This new album has gotten lots of press for the audacious and excellent 19-minute cover of Pink Floyd’s famous song Echoes, which anchors the project. But, I’m particularly fond of Witness Tree, a bright, crisply wrought track that pulses with energy from the jump and lively moves through at least five different movements.

According to the record’s liner notes, this song was named to honor the moment in 2016 when Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero first conceived of the album that became Mettavolution. While on tour in Japan, they sat beneath a newly planted tree on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and committed to “reconnecting with the physical rush and emotional core of the music they first made together.”

Hell yes.

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Apple Music | Spotify

Anderson .Paak — Winners Circle

In Anderson .Paak parlance, “Yes Lawd!” God dammit, this track is so slick.

Winners Circle hails from Anderson .Paak’s latest record, Ventura. Written at the same time as his November 2018, Dr. Dre-produced and now Grammy-winning album Oxnard, but released just three weeks ago in April, Ventura feels like an under-the-radar sleeper LP. Compared to the hype, anticipation, big build-up and media blitz that supported Oxnard (heightened by the real stylistic/artistic left turn it marked), Paak dropped Ventura with a whisper.

Fine by me. Keep it quiet. Because as much as I appreciate the energy and flash and sizzle of Oxnard (and respect Paak for stretching out a bit), I am much more down with the easygoing vintage vibe of Ventura.

Winner’s Circle showcases everything that Paak has going for him: A beast-mode band in The Free Nationals; a consistently strong sense of both beat and harmony, anchored in 70s funk and soul; a sing-song rap style that rides perfectly over a groove; and his trademark drumming chops and raspy vocals. The lyrics are relatively breezy, talking about the feelings of new love. But, it’s the killer groove and the shifting verses — each one slightly different — that drives this track. Gah, it’s so goooooooood!

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Apple Music | Spotify | Soundcloud

Concert Special! — Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, featuring “The Love,” Asase Yaa Entertainment Group

Last night, I saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for the first time. This morning, I am still transfixed and in a bit of a fog; still caught up in the artistry, grace, power, and emotion of the performances. Marking the 60th anniversary of the company, Ailey 60 spanned decades. There were classic pieces choreographed by Alvin Ailey himself in the 1960s to the music of traditional hymns and spirituals (the famous “Revelations”), modern pieces danced to funk, disco, and hip-hop of the early 1980s (“Stack-Up”), and a visceral, highly charged performance choreographed incredibly by Robert Battle in 2003 to an incredibly bold and modern original composition for orchestra by John Mackey (“Juba”).

Each were beyond remarkable.

Musically, however, I was particularly taken with the selections for the newest piece, a beautiful blend of modern and African dance completed in 2018 and titled “The Call.”

The Call by Ronald K. Brown from Alvin Ailey on Vimeo.

It features three distinct pieces of music, the last one titled, The Love from the album Drum Love, which is the soundtrack to a play of the same title featuring the Asase Yaa Cultural Arts Foundation drummers led by Yao Ababio and Osei Ababio. I got lost in this music and the dancing was so well-choreographed to it; all fluid movements, deeply soulful, patient and quiet, while conveying strength and pride.

Featured Image: Paul Kolnik