Album Review: Water or Gold – Hollie Smith (Warner Music)

Water Or Gold

Hollie Smith

Originally appeared in:

With her new, aptly titled third solo effort, Smith really has struck it – big time!  For years she’d resisted taking the easy route and cashing in on the success of her performance on Bathe in the River.  She shunned making commercial music at every turn.

After a series of patchy experiments with big labels (the Manhattan Records ‘incident’); independent lash-outs (Humour and The Misfortune Of Others); techno-trash (Band of Brothers, with Electric Wire Hustle’s Mara TK) and churchyard-vineyard collaborations with Anika Moa and Boh Runga (Peace of Mind) she’s found her way back to ‘Soul’ and her mojo with it.

That couldn’t be clearer than on the album’s title track, which is saturated in infectious dirty-cool, hook-laden guitar funk, Rhodes keyboards and almost-perfect Gospel harmonies.  And Smith is right in the middle of it leading the charge with a big, crystal-clear vocals and strong lyrics.

The big power ballad In Love Again has more than a hint of Aretha behind it, reminding us that with the right tune, she’s is well capable of nailing the big emotional belters.

Helena (about her friend Helena McAlpine, who recently died of breast cancer) is a deeply, gut wrenching personal song.  It was and co-penned by Helena’s Husband Chris Barton and performed bedside during her last days.  Even without the backstory, it yanks the heartstrings with swirling organs and more Gospel choruses which swell up, heaven-bound to a full tempest of emotional crescendos.  If Smith does this one live on her upcoming national tour, it will totally steal the show.


Elsewhere, she gets her conscious groove on.  Poor on Poor has a heavy dose of guitar fuzz and there’s plenty of hard swing driving home the messages on the inspirational Lead The Way.  The single Lady Dee is the only one that sits a little outside the brief, with a chorus that borrows too heavily from Prince’s ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ (or is it Margaret Urlich’s “Escaping’) and never really delivers on the promise.  Still, its loose cabaret ambience and yet more funk overtones make it brilliant tune-none-the-less – and a million miles from the awkward, difficult torch songs of her debut Long Player.

In a previous interview Smith told me that when it comes to writing she’s a bit of a perfectionist and a procrastinator, taking her own sweet time to coax out the muse.  With recent a break up and the ensuing custody business, a move to Tauranga and a return to Auckland to nurse her terminally ill friend recent life has been a huge rollercoaster of a distraction.  But it was also a motivator.  So she set a December 2015 deadline, bought tickets to NY enlisted USA based Kiwi Producer Aaron Nevezie (Black Keys, Danger Mouse) and went hell for leather for three weeks.  The end result is quite possibly her best work to date: Infectious, funky, personal, mainstream accessible and above all deeply soulful.

Tim Gruar

Album Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By (Fantasy)

Originally appeared on:

Based in Jacksonville, Florida, hubby and wife team Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi formed the band back in 2010 and ever since have been making a sweet gumbo of blues, rock, blues and soul.  On stage they’re part Memphis soul and part show band, with their current line up numbering anything from 6 to 12 members.

The band’s grown a bit since their debut album, Revelator (2011), which won the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Blues Album and so has their sound.  But despite their success and sheer size and the logistics of a band they never show any signs on this, their third studio release, of cracking under pressure. The music is relaxed but still energetic.  And confident.

There’s been a change in the band’s dynamic lately, especially in the rhythm section with both drummers and the bass player all perfectly married up and lock-stepped.  The overall effect is a totally professional, tight sound across every song, even with provisions for solos.  This is a band so very comfortable in its skin and that’s important because it’s also a band that records and tours together.  So chemistry is important.  In part that’s down to drummer Tim Lefebvre (who also appear on David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar) taking on a sort of musical coordinator role.

The old adage that a band of friends play together best certainly applies here, too.  It’s clear this is a band that’s having fun.  While other bands are fretting about the economy, climate change and Republican nominations these originals all appear to float above all that, like a warm mist over the water.  That’s particularly true on the jazzy Right On Time.  With its show tune swagger it could easily be the title for a Broadway musical.  In contrast, Don’t Know What It Means is more bluesy.  Susan Tedeschi has a similar vocal style to Bonnie Raitt, with a gravel timbre and just a hint of that come-hither huskiness.  That tune also displays the band’s confidence to go off grid and improvise towards the end.

This is the band’s most autonomous work to date, too.  Let Me Get By was made entirely ‘in-house’.

In interviews Tedeschi has often voiced her strong feeling that bands should be allowed to play what they hear and feel, without the commercial constraints of radio air play and genre boxing.  During the making of the record the band spend a lot of time together, cooking, eating, boozing, and all that leads to a freeing up.  Without the pressure to check the clock the musicians not only play better but seem to add a little of their own spirit into each song.

On Anyhow Truck’s guitar solo just seems to go on endlessly, building stronger and stronger over a swelling backdrop of horns and gospel BV’s.  On In Every Heart we go to church again.  This time the warm harmonies draw goose pimples.  This is the best soul food you can get.  Complimenting that is I Want More.  Pure Memphis soul.  Tedeschi Trucks band make slick professional soul and blues.  It might not be as grungy as Alabama Shakes or as deep as James Brown but the overall effect is a totally professional, tight sound across every song, even with provisions for solos.  This is a great party album and a brilliant distraction form real life.  What’s wrong with that?

Album Review: Mavis Staples – Livin’ On A Higher Note (Anti-)

Originally appears on:

I heard that America is considering replacing one of their White Male Presidents with a suitably famous female figure on one of their bank notes.  The most likely candidate, if it does ever happen, would be Rosa Parks.  But I’d suggest a second candidate: Mavis Staples.  By now most people know about her long and eventful life and her career, which began with her time singing with the legendary Staples Singers during one of the most contentious periods in American history. And hers’ is a voice that still continues to resonate as one of the most powerful and relevant voices of the Civil Rights movement. As America faces the upcoming electoral circus, with all those old scabs picked over once again, her soothing, rational lyrics and uplifting music is as relevant today as it ever was.   But the passing of time has mellowed Staples somewhat.  Still, she still clearly wears her faith on her sleeve.  Since joining Anti-Records more than a decade ago her exceptional output has continued to grow and her audience’s hunger for it has kept track with that.

Staples is a hard worker and the rewards have paid off.  The week her new album, Livin’ on A High Note, was released it was announced that her version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave Is Keep Clean won a Grammy for Best American Roots Performance – her second to date.  Last year she also made the Ep Your Good Fortune with Son Little and also was heavily involved with the HBO biopic Mavis!  Hopefully, that film will find its way over to our shores sometime soon.  Through all that she’s toured constantly both in the States and overseas.  Retirement, it seems, is not on the agenda.

Now 76, her passion for togetherness, hope and social harmony is still strong.  Many of her records have a strong religious undercurrent and messages of hope through faith have been central to her music.  But on …High Note, her fifteenth studio album, she’s branched out, enfolding a diverse group of collaborators into the mix and more variation in tempo and styles.

The album starts with Benjamin Brooker’s Take Us Back – a bright, breezy nod to growing up in Chicago and reconnecting with her roots.  “I got friends and I got family,” she sings “I got help from all the people who love me.” Booker is just one admirer giving back.  … Higher note also credits song writing to  Ben Harper, Neko Case, the tUnE-yArDs, The Head and the Heart, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Nick Cave, Aloe Blacc, Son Little, John Batiste and M. Ward, who drove the producer’s console at LA’s King Size Soundlabs.  Also on board is her new kindred spirit in blues singer Valerie June who wrote the album’s signature tune High Note.

I was a little surprised not to see Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) involved this time, given his heavy contribution on her last work One True Vine and previous works.  In fact it was through Tweedy that I got to meet her at a concert in Wellington, a few years back when she supported Wilco’s Australasian tour.  Although only five foot in stature, her aura and personality just seemed to fill the room.  “Honey,” she told me, “we need to fill you up!”  And she did, later that night on stage with her huge, raspy, powerful voice.  It was a voice filled with experience, heartache, optimism, caring, and above all, faith.  How Staples uses all this on her new record, her most diverse so far, is the most remarkable thing.

All the way through, it’s clear that this is her gig.  Every writer has done their homework, taking absolute care to get inside her head, crafting lyrics the way she would, right down to phrasing.  Ben Harper’s Love and Trust, is an easy fit, with a heapin’ helping of old school gospel in the chorus.  It showcases backing singer Sonny Gerrard’s deep, soulful timbre which is paired flawlessly with Vicki Randle’s own to produce spine-tingling harmonies.  Vernon and Ward paint “Dedication” with pastoral brush.  It’s not really country-soul but you could see Ray Charles wanting to cover this one.  Nick Cave has always focussed on the darker side of religion.  He’s gravitated towards confessionals, fire, brimstone, redemption.  So it was a surprise to find him on the end of the pen writing “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me”.  It’s a lighter, more uplifting song – more akin to Staples’ earlier works.  It’s also one of the album’s most poignant and powerful tunes.

Staples recently told the American press that her agenda for this record was to ‘be joyful’.  She wanted to stop people crying, stop all the negativity in the world.  It’s her deliberate plan to spread good vibrations.  For this album, her template was Pharrell William’s Happy, she’s said.  Given her own past, she’s better equipped to speak to the audiences of today who are still reeling from economic crises, endless wars in the Middle Eastern, terrorist threats, poverty gaps and all manner of social upheaval.  Her tool kit is a deep pocket of feel-good affirmations like “Don’t Cry” and the delightfully simple adaption of Alma Bazel Androzzo’s “If I Can Help Somebody,” redone as MLK, which was quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the conclusion of his famous “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, delivered two months before he was murdered.  Five years earlier, in 1963, the song was recorded by Mahalia Jackson.  Her father Pops Staples encountered Dr King in 1963 and eventually became one of his confidantes.  The Staples Singers often open at his public appearances right up until he was assassinated.  So it’s probably the most personal and historic track on this album. It’s also the most stripped-down track on the record, with Mavis accompanied only by Ward’s acoustic guitar.

“If I can do my duty, as a Christian ought,

If I should sing salvation to the world he wrought,

If I can spread the message that the Master taught,

Then my living will not be in the vain.”

The writing may be diverse but in every case Staples has interpreted them with her own personal touch.  Every song is reinforced with themes of spiritual strength, community, friendship.  A cynic would claim this is no different than the stale, worn messages every churchman pumps out on every corner of every town across the country.  Yet, in Staples’ case the messages are so pure, so universal and so genuine you can’t help but be encouraged.




100 Favourite Songs – 96 Get Back – Laibach

Probably the band’s most famous release, at least in the English-speaking world, Laibach’s  Let It Be didn’t just name itself after the Beatles’ swan song, it fully covered the whole shebang! The only notable exception is “Maggie Mae” which is oddly substituted for a Slovenian folk tune substituted for it.  As a late night DJ during those halcyon University day this was my wake up tune after a night along with the turntables – and a bottle of meths.  Having spent some time beforehand drawing any number of parallels of right-wing extremism with their home country’s government and the West alike, especially when it came to the resemblance of big rock concerts to totalitarian rallies, all Laibach had to do was tackle what they felt was the Beatles’ worst album. In some respects, Let It Be wasn’t that hard.  Songs like “Get Back,” “I Me Mine,” and “One After 909” simply had to be made over by an industrial Miner’s orchestra to go from ethereal pop to Nuremburg’s warm up sing-songs (growled vocals, martial drums, chanting choirs, overpowering orchestrations, insanely over-the-top guitar solos). The sheer creepiness of hearing these numbers is more than enough reason to listen in — “Dig It” in particular becomes a full-on Third Reich chant, only to be trumped by the meta-metal fake-live recording blast of “I’ve Got a Feeling.” In a more subtle way, “Across the Universe” easily trumps the original, only a female choir, harpsichord, and organ turning it into a disturbed anthem of acquiescence. Meanwhile, other efforts like “Two of Us” have a smooth, strong passion to their arrangements — the sheer appeal of the commanding delivery in its own way helps explain the appeal of stage-managed demonstrations and performance. It’s a joke endlessly folded in on itself, a killing joke and then some.  If the Marx brothers were a Slovenian version of the Beatles then, after too much vodka and weekly diet of Trotsky pamphlets it would sound like this.  Long live the peoples turnips!