Last year I made a list if the top 15 rappers of all-time. I stand by it today, but after listening to Prisoner Of Conscious I may have to re-think it a little. I didn’t include Talib Kweli, but noted in the comments that if I had one more slot, he would share it with Mos Def. I left him off the list because honestly there was a gap between Beautiful Struggle and now where his albums just fell off a bit. They weren’t bad, but I didn’t feel like they were up to his potential.
He did some great one-offs in that time, including awesome appearances with Paper Diamond and Break Science. He wasn’t exactly coasting, but maybe he was spreading himself too thin. However, when I saw him live at Double Door a few weeks ago the man on stage was re-energized, vital. He really came out with a “take no prisoners” attitude and just destroyed the audience.
Some of the highlights from the set were new songs off Prisoner Of Conscious, and my anticipation level went sky high. I was finally excited about a Kweli record again. It’s out today and does not disappoint.
The featured guest list on Prisoner is like a who’s who of hip-hop: Busta Rhymes, Curren$y, Kendrick Lamar, Nelly-even the Portuguese singer Seu Jorge makes an appearance. The biggest surprise comes from Busta Rhymes-his verse on “Rocket Ships” is unbelievable. Kweli has always been smart about who he surrounds himself with on recordings. Usually on rap records I feel like there’s too many collaborations, but it feels right on this one.
Lyrics have never been a problem for Kweli, so it’s no surprise that they’re mostly brilliant on Prisoner. When it comes to rappers who wrote about the real problems facing our nation and the world, no one does it better than Kweli. He still manages to make it fun, too. Maybe that’s the most impressive thing about this record-it doesn’t feel like a lecture even though he’s schooling us as always.
For me, the top tracks off Prisoner are as follows: “High Life,” “Upper Echelon,” “Come Here,” and the album closer “It Only Gets Better.” The delivery on the final track in particular is excellent. Kweli jumps back an forth between pop culture references an old world adages like they’ve always belonged side by side. Marsha Ambrosius provides a beautiful voice to sing the chorus as well.
Prisoner Of Conscious dropped today, and I hope people pick it up. It pleases me to no end knowing that a rapper who has never had huge sales can still thrive in the music business and make the music that he wants to make. I’m looking forward to many more great records in the future.
I don’t have a ton to add about Fort Frances’ live show. After last night’s performance, I believe the seventh time I’ve seen them live, I’m convinced they are one of the best live acts around. Pretty much every show has given a preview of at least one new song that hasn’t been released. They also do a great job of rearranging their material, so it never feels like you’re seeing the same show again. Fresh off the early success of their latest EP, Harbour, the band played like they were happy to be in front of the hometown crowd again, and the audience-most of them three sheets to the wind due to celebrating the Mexican holiday in the traditional way-were in a frenzy for most of the evening.
The music started with The Great American Canyon Band, a fantastic duo who currently reside in Baltimore. I only caught the tail end of their set as I was at work when they went on. I’ve seen them here in Chicago before, though, and they do a great job. You can check out their new EP, Lost At Sea, in all the usual places. I recommend Bandcamp. I had a good talk with Paul Masson after the show, and it sounds like they may be back later this year so keep your eyes peeled.
David McMillin hit the stage with Aaron Kiser and Jeff Piper for what I assumed would be a barrage of songs from the new record and some older stuff sprinkled in. Quite the opposite, Fort Frances opened with a couple songs off their debut LP, The Atlas, before hitting us with “Truths I Used To Know” and my favorite song from Harbour, “Please Don’t Wait Up.” Surprisingly, they didn’t play the single that preceded the record, “City By The Sea.” I respect the decision though.
Since this was a Cinco de Mayo show, the crowd was a mix of folks there to hear some great music and some looking to party (and by party I mean talk about things that happened earlier in the day while sloppily “dancing”). There were two points where everyone in the crowd shut up and focused completely on what was going on in front of them. One was during “Please Don’t Wait Up,” thank goodness. The next was during the band’s famous cover of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “Summertime.” The third occurred at the very end of the show, when the three gentlemen made their way to the middle of the floor to play the acoustic tune “The Wetlands.”
Fort Frances are easily one of the best Chicago bands working today, and I think before too long they’ll be known nationally as a critically praised fan favorite headlining festivals. For now, I’m happy to have them here playing at venues like Schubas where I can enjoy their music without having to battle my way through a thousand people. There will be tears when that day comes, but they will be tears of joy. There is no band more deserving of success than these guys. If you haven’t taken the time to listen, you better do it now before they start getting fun.-type radio play and you can’t stand them anymore.
I get a lot of music submissions every week, and I’m grateful that bands and artists are seeing out my opinion (and the little exposure that provides). I really like listening to everything and getting to know the bands that send me stuff. One thing I don’t really dig is reviewing singles. I’ve mentioned this before, but anyone can strike gold once. I want to hear you over a full album. Tell me a story, not just the punchline, ya know?
So, with that in mind, here are a bunch of single songs that have been sent to me in the past couple weeks that I like, but won’t be reviewing. I’ve also included a couple tracks from records that I haven’t had a chance to review, but think they’re worth checking out. Here we go…
Foreign Talks-”The Spell”
The All-About-”Whatever, Happy Birthday”
Moritat-”I Forgot To Kiss Her”
The Bynars-”All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun Tonight”
Dear Stars-”Hero In Our Eyes”
The Features-”With Every Beat”
Talib Kweli feat Busta Rhymes-”Rocket Ships”
It’s been a while since I really dug into Secret Colours. I’ve heard bits and pieces, but the last time I really paid attention was back in 2010. I covered their release show at Beat Kitchen where they were celebrating the release of their single “Watch The Drone.” The group was fuzzed out and psychedelic for sure. I was standing next to Tommy Evans’ dad for the set and he couldn’t have been more proud.
Since then Secret Colours have toured extensively and released a couple more records. Live, you could tell they knew what they wanted to sound like, but it’s tough for young bands to turn that desired sound into reality. On Peach, the new album coming out at the end of the month, I think they’ve finally captured what they’ve been aiming for. I credit producer Brian Deck and the bands organic evolution for this great leap forward.
Secret Colours is still a trippy psych rock band, but they’re approaching it in new, interesting ways. The fuzzy guitars have given way to a cleaner sound, almost Dark Side Of The Moon-ish in a sense. They seem to be putting more emphasis on creating good songs instead of just making it strange for strange’s sake.
This is greatly illustrated on the song “Blackhole.” It’s a slow burner that builds and builds until a swirling guitar solo hits almost four minutes in. The band shows a great deal of patience and trust in the listeners. In not sure try were mature enough a couple years ago to display that kind of restrain. Peach is filled with great examples of the band growing up and figuring out their strengths.
On “Lust” they go for a bluesy rock sound reminiscent of some of The Monkees’ headier tunes. The bass line is hellacious and really sets a groove. Lay on top of that the echoing vocals and the surgical precision with which the guitar is blended in and you have yourself a really fun late summer night song.
It always makes me happy when I hear Chicago bands making strides toward creating work of the highest caliber. Secret Colours are certainly on their way. Their only listed shows for now are this Saturday, May 4th, at FeelTrip Studios and the record release show June 8th at Empty Bottle-both in Chicago. I’m sure more will be announced closer to the albums release date.
Just when you think you have Papoose figured out, H.D. Harmsen goes off in a completely different direction. One minute he’s singing something that sounds like an old American standard, the next he’s crushing guitar solos and singing with punk-like aggression. The dynamic shifts and genre switches make this album one of the most fun listening experiences of 2013 so far.
Having spent his musical career until now as a player in many bands but never the lead, Harmsen is quickly making up for lost time. He’s teamed up with fellow Iowan Chris Ford (Christopher The Conquered) to create a genre-bending collection that reminds me of Tom Waits, and Harmsen’s lyrics are every bit as deep. The most impressive thing about Papoose isn’t that Harmsen changes up the style so often, but that he does it so well. With every new sound that comes up you’re forced to believe that he could make a great album in any of these genres.
Your favorite song is sure to depend on your personal preference of music-type. Mine is the guitar-heavy track “The Divorce.” Harmsen’s voice is buried beneath the drums and bass so you can barely make out the words, but his voice somehow fits perfectly into the music. After a blistering solo the vocals become more prominent, and the song gets even better. This is one you can listen to over and over and hear something new every time. It kinda sounds like early Green Day at times, only if Green Day had given a damn about their instruments being in tune.
Other early favorites are “A Love Forgotten,” which mixes a great horn section with a driving kick drum and stellar electric guitar work to create an indie rock companion to Chicago’s “25 Or 6 To 4.” “How To Kill A Monster,” a melancholy tune about depression that slowly turns into a Supertramp-like big arena singalong/jam band freak out. And finally the title track, “Papoose.” I think my favorite vocal performance come here, as Harmsen is singing “Come cover me.”
This album was definitely a labor of love. Harmsen and Ford work together brilliantly, and their vision for the album screams through on every song regardless of style. Hopefully now that Papoose has been released, we will start hearing serious talk about a H.D. Harmsen/Christopher The Conquered/Gloom Balloon tour. At least in the Midwest.
For a folk singer, Josh Ritter puts on one helluva rock and roll show. Actually, that statement doesn’t need a qualifier-he puts on a great show regardless of genre. Last night at The Vic was no different than the previous five times I’ve seen him. His show is around 90 minutes of unadulterated good times. Even when he’s singing a sad, slow ballad you feel so connected to him that it’s fun just to be in the same room. After a two year break from Chicago, the local fans were in a frenzy before the show.
Josh took the stage solo for the first song, thanking the sold out crowd for coming out before launching into a beautiful rendition of “Idaho.” We got an early look at one of his favorite show moves, which is to point the mic down and sing from his knees up toward the heavens. He pulled it out again later, but it wasn’t as effective as this moment.
After that he started playing “Southern Pacifica” acoustically. He was slowly joined by the rest of the band-first Sam Kassirer, then Austin Nevins, Zachariah Hickman, and Liam Hurley. The first three minutes of the song were a pretty faithful version of the album track, but toward the end it exploded into a trippy jam led by Nevins’ guitar solo. I don’t remember this one getting a big arrangement last time I saw the band, but it was a cool change that made the song about two minutes longer.
Next we got “Hopeful,” the first of eight songs in the set from the new album The Beast In Its Tracks. This is my favorite of the new songs, and the live version was perfectly executed. The crowd seemed to really respond to the latest tunes. Most of the people around me seemed to know all the words and wanted to belt them out.
There were a couple long talking periods where Josh would talk about the city of Chicago and its past (leading up to “Lillian, Egypt” and “The Curse”). Later he talked about the background of TBIIT and how angry he was at marriage for a while. He came to realize that it wasn’t marriage that was bad, it’s wonderful. And anyone who wants to get married should be able to. Well, if you know Chicago you know that those words went over very, very well.
This show was the band’s 14th in 15 days, but there were no signs of wearing down. They all looked like they were having a blast up there, and probably could have played all night if they were allowed. The set went back and forth between new and old. Four songs came from The Animal Years and three from Historical Conquests. “Harrisburg” was not played, which is a huge disappointment because that song is amazing live (if you haven’t seen it, they always segue in and out of a cover in the middle-”Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes” by Modest Mouse was a great one).
Josh Ritter might be the best performer in the world right now. His energy is so infectious he can make even the most stoic audience groove. The band, together now for close to a decade, is as tight as they come. And more importantly they are having fun. I can’t recommend catching a show enough. This was my sixth, and I already can’t wait for the seventh!
Joy To You
Apple Blossom Rag (Ritter & Hickman)
Temptation Of Adam (solo)
In The Dark (solo-no lights)
Snow Is Gone
In Your Arms Again
To The Dogs Or Whoever
For more pics from the show, including a few of the opener (Sea Wolf’s Alex Brown Church), head over to our Facebook page and check out the album.
Tonight Josh Ritter hits Chicago, and I’ll be there just like I am every time he plays within 50 miles of me. I’m running through my usual show-day ritual of listening to some deep cuts, and I thought it might be a good time to shine a spotlight on some of the man’s unheralded work. Everybody loves “Kathleen” and “The Curse,” but let’s give it up for the songs that make up the other 90% of his records.
9. In The Dark
(Editor’s note: this video is from SxSw 2011, and I make a brief appearance around the 5:35 mark)
8. Hotel Song
7. One More Mouth
5. Open Doors
4. Long Shadows
2. Morning Is A Long Way Down
1. Naked As A Window
Feel free to share your favorite Josh Ritter song or one that you think deserves more praise below in the comments.