"Flamagra" is the latest album by Flying Lotus the noted producer, musician, and filmmaker also known as Stephen Ellison. Only three of the tracks were available to preview before the album’s full release. But I was so enamored with some of the names that were being featured, I went ahead and pre-ordered the entire thing. One of the greatest departures of this album, and the others before it, is that despite a sense of familiarity with the style, if feels as if each track is grown organically. Characteristic mixtures of synth, percussion, and funk style base give the listener a sense that there is order in there somewhere if you just listen long enough. A sort of musical chaos theory given form.
Two of the tracks on the album have accompanying videos, “More” featuring .Paak Anderson and directed by Shinichiro Watanabe of “Cowboy Bebop” fame, another featuring the voice of famed director David Lynch. That Anderson .Paak track, which was released early along with two others, is probably the homerun of the album. There were some disappointing spots in it, but this track redeems much of it. In fact the song and the video made me hope for a .Paak album produced by Flying Lotus.
It always seemed to me that George Clinton would be a natural artistic ancestor in the FlyLo geneology. One of the first things that occurred to me as I was listening to the released tracks, and even some of his older work was “George Clinton and Gap Band had a love child”. But I was underwhelmed by Clinton’s performance on the album. You almost always expect the unexpected with Clinton. The one thing you don’t expect to be unexpected is an underpowered performance. It struck me as a mumble rap performance with the gain turned down.
Shabazz Palace the duo comprised of Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire. In case you don’t recognize Butler’s name, he is one of the founding members of 90s rap sensation “Digable Planets”. Ever since Shabazz Palace’s Tiny Desk performance on NPR, I’d been looking forward to something new from them. When I saw that they were being featured on a track on this album, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Until I heard the actual track. This is not to say that the performance was bad but it seemed to be a missed opportunity. Shabazz Palaces and Flying Lotus didn’t need each other in order to deliver the track that was produced. It was like mixing two ingredients that neither enhanced nor detracted from one another. Given the level of creativity and discipline we’ve come to expect from all artists, that track ultimately fell flat. I was expecting a fission-fusion of creativity, a TNT to geometric atomic warhead explosion of lyrics and beats. What I got was a firecracker suddenly doused in water.
Little Dragon is featured on the track “Spontaneous”. And the vocals leant by Yukimi Nagano was the standout for me. Despite the performance not being transcendent, the dreamlike quality her voice can take on meshed well with the track and thematically, it was a great addition to the album.
Tiara Whack on “Yellow Belly” was cool. But I wasn’t hyped over it like others I know. I will definitely look out for new stuff from her. I have to say the same for Denzel Curry. I felt like he phoned his performance in a bit.
What we’ve come to expect from Flying Lotus is innovation and excellence. And he delivered that, as he always does, on this album. However, this was not the quantum leap in his musical evolution that we were expecting. I was pleased to see that his capacity for assembling incredible yet underutilized talent has only grown as has his own ability to weave narratives with his uniquely innovative style. But I just wasn’t blown away by something that promised to be absolutely wild.
Flying Lotus fans may end up being a bit disappointed with this latest effort. Newcomers to his music may find it satisfying unless they are already familiar with the work of some of the featured artists. Despite my disappointment with a couple of aspects of the album, I would still recommend it. The music is still great and still original and for those looking to expand their music tastes FlyLo is always working with artists new and old. There are subtleties to be gleaned from repeated listening. I could swear I heard a little Herbie Hancock in a couple of the tracks, and as it turned out, he performs on the album. The Bruner Brothers also perform on the album. Even though I was disappointed in Ishmael Butler’s performance, Tendai Maraire’s musicianship on the Shabazz Palaces track was on point. I’ve always used Flying Lotus’ albums to write to. And that will be the case for this one. I still recommend buying the album though not as highly as I would like to.
Almost ten years ago I went searching for an African American folk band. I was looking for alternatives, in general, to my existing diet of Metal, Hip Hop, and Lounge. I’d been into Bluegrass for a while, but mostly the much older stuff and while there was a lot of it to take in, I didn’t find the variety I was looking for. This led me on a much longer quest and into a much deeper rabbit hole that included Zydeco, and Folk. Eventually, I came across a band called “The Carolina Chocolate Drops”, a folk band from North Carolina. At the time they only had one album, and it ended up saving my quest for new music. Rhiannon Giddens is one of the founding members of the group” who, in 2010 won a Grammy for their album “Genuine Negro Jig”.
They have since produced 7 albums and a few of their members have even gone on to have successful solo careers, Giddens being among them. When I came across her other album, released earlier this year, “Songs of our Native Daughters” I admit I didn’t make the connection between her and The Chocolate Drops, right away. Nevertheless, I was blown away by her voice and skills with a banjo. When I heard she had another album coming out, I scoured the internet to see if I could hear a bit of it and I finally found it in March on NPR’s “First Listen”
“There is no other” is her latest album and a statement about the otherizing of marginalized groups and it meshes with Giddens’ apparent vision. One of the great things about the messages in this album is the concentric layers of it that seem to be present in both the vocals and the instrumentals. By incorporating musical styles from around the world, she is drawing a clear commonality among all people, with music. It was interesting to hear that banjo at the top of all the arrangements and I was amazed to hear how well it blended with the other instruments, further enhancing Giddens’ message and reinforcing in my mind how rare of a talent she possesses.
But the whole point of the album for us was Giddens’ sublime voice and preternatural gift with the banjo and the viola. There was an American folk and country feel with beautiful Mediterranean instrumentals running beneath it all. The addition of these instruments was no doubt the work of her collaborator on the album Francesco Turrisi, a multi-instrumental Jazz musician. I was particularly pleased because Giddens' journey and growth as a musician is so clearly mapped in her work. By engaging with other forms of music and attempting such an ambitious melding of musical styles and origins, it was clear she wanted to deliver something entirely new. And she did. The album is out on May 3rd and it is highly recommended.
As stated above, the album in its entirety is available to listen to on NPR here. And once again, I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to support these artists by going to iTunes or whichever platform you prefer and paying to download the album.
British born “Queen of Country Soul”? Why not? “Walk Through Fire” firmly establishes British born vocalist, Yola, as precisely that. My first encounter with this magnetic voice was “Faraway Look”, a single that played on NPR’s ideastream before the official release of the album. My initial impression was a modern take on 60s era Brit-pop with a splash of Motown. It actually reminded me of LuLu, though Yola’s vocals are far superior. As the album continued, I kept getting distinct hints of country and kept asking myself if I was hearing what I was hearing.
“Love All Night (Work All Day)” has a title and some 70s era tremolo guitar licks running through it that made the song just beautiful and homey. This was a quintessentially country song in terms of tempo and arrangement. Once I got a look at the music video for this one, as well as “Ride Out In the Country”, there was no mistaking the musical direction of the album. However, it is important that I prepare someone looking for a little Loretta or Dolly, that while this is essentially a country album, it is also a soul album, hence the assertion on Yola’s website that she is the “Queen of Country Soul”. If this is a new genre, I’m here for it. There is also a darkness in the work. It’s conveyed quite clearly in the images in her videos, but if you listen to the lyrics there is almost a supernaturally “Bluesy” darkness to them. Additionally, this feels a bit like a crossover album in that it brings together two genres of music you wouldn’t expect to see together.
There was nothing to dislike about this album. Yola has a powerful voice and a rich and dark timber that I haven’t heard in a female vocalist in years. Dan Auerbach of “Black Keys” fame, produced this album. I wasn’t surprised to discover this since his own debut effort had some heavily blues-influenced songs. This was a dream collaboration for listeners and heightened my excitement for its release. Yola could have done far worse in a producer than Auerbach. And he clearly understood her vision. Together they produced something that demonstrated her range by choosing updated arrangements from the ages, effectively demonstrating the “timelessness” of Yola’s voice. Whether Auerbach is involved in her next effort or not, I am looking forward to seeing what Yola does next.
All of the songs can be listened to on npr.org, or you can just check out her videos on Youtube. As always, I am going to recommend that you actually buy the album on iTunes or wherever you prefer that the album is available.