Janelle Mon?e – The Electric Lady
The uber-creative Janelle Monae continues her upward trajectory with suites IV and V of the Metropolis series of sci-fi concept albums. Loaded with guest artists, orchestral interludes, skits, and numerous nods to classic soul, rock, disco and hip-hop, The Electric Lady initially comes off as wanting to be a big album. It kicks off with the one-two punch of Prince’s guest vocals and searing guitar on “Givin Em What They Love” and the awesome rave-up “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Erykah Badu. Then, after channelling Madonna, young Michael Jackson and perhaps Donna Summer on pop gems “We Were Rock & Roll” and “Dance Apocalyptic,” the album pulls in the reins and settles into mid-tempo and slow jam grooves the rest of the way through. While the first half stands out more, the latter is actually the stronger side, full of work resembling the deep cuts that fill out Stevie Wonder’s best 1970s records. With her finest music to date, Mon?e shows that she can pull off collaboration and hero-respect-paying better than just about anyone right now, all while maintaining an individual voice.
Leelawadee Quartet – Remind Rewind
I missed this one back in May when it was released by Thai label Baichasong, but upon recent discovery I couldn’t resist sharing my enjoyment of it. Remind Rewind is a largely instrumental album, featuring live-in-the-studio performances of traditional tunes by a small chamber quartet, led by Thai National Symphony Orchestra violinist Suwan Manosorn. This is classical music made for pure aural pleasure, to accompany a candlelit dinner with your sweetheart, or perhaps a Sunday afternoon picnic in Suan Buak Haad. It’s sophisticated but wholly unpretentious. The first track’s cello riff reminds me of Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle,” minus the drugs and depravity. Other songs recall the soundtracks to feel-good indie films, and the handful of songs that do feature vocals are beautifully sung and help keep the flow interesting. The full album can be streamed and purchased at www.baichasong.bandcamp.com/album/rewind-remind.
Ry Cooder y Corridos Famosas – Live in San Francisco
The fact that the newest output from Ry Cooder is a live album should be celebrated as much as the wonderful music found within it. The guitarist most famous for The Buena Vista Social Club (and numerous other fruitful pairings with world music luminaries) has barely toured since the early 1990s and hasn’t released a live album since 1976’s Show Time. Among the ace performers on stage are longtime friends, including singer Terry Evans, accordion master Flaco Jimenez, his son Joachim on drums, and a 10-piece horn section from Mexico called La Banda Juvenil. All but two of the tracks are covers that fans will recognize from Cooder’s studio albums, but the arrangements are different enough and the performances so energetic that things never get boring. In fact, this recording is a testament to the staid power of traditional folk and blues music, as well as the largely acoustic instruments used to create it. Highlights include: “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile,” “Why Don’t You Try Me,” and “Do Re Mi.”