For nearly two decades, Eric Krasno has been an omnipresent figure in popular music. We've heard his virtuosic, innovative guitar playing with Soulive and Lettuce (both of which he co-founded), seen him onstage supporting the likes of the Rolling Stones and The Roots, watched him take home multiple GRAMMY Awards, and benefited from his deft, behind-the-scenes work as a producer and songwriter for everyone from Norah Jones, Tedeschi Trucks, and 50 Cent to Talib Kweli, Aaron Neville, and Allen Stone. Krasno's rousing new solo album, 'Blood From A Stone,' reveals a previously unknown and utterly compelling side of his artistry, though, inviting us to bear witness as he both literally and metaphorically finds his voice.
Stereotypes marks the third LP but major-label debut for hip-hop/classical crossover duo Black Violin, who also incorporate jazz, R&B, roots, rap, and pop into their unconstrained sound. Violinist Marcus and violist Wil B invited numerous collaborators to the recording, including but not limited to Grammy-winning singer Melanie Fiona, rapper Pharoahe Monch, keyboardist Ray Angry (Dianne Reeves, Elvis Costello), drummer Daru Jones (Jack White, Talib Kweli), string arranger/performer Rob Moose (yMusic, Alabama Shakes, Bon Iver), and producer Eli Wolf (Norah Jones, Digable Planets). Much more likely to appeal to open-minded hip-hop devotees and those with eclectic tastes than to strict classical fans, the impressive collection offers 11 original tunes, including the atmospheric and wistful "Addiction" and virtuosic instrumental "Runnin'," as well as a funky, mostly instrumental cover of the Bacharach-David classic "Walk on By."
In honor of the group's 20th anniversary, the original trio lineup of G. Love & Special Sauce reunited and recorded 2014's Sugar. The band's second album for Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records, Sugar harks back to G. Love & Special Sauce's early lo-fi blues, rap, and soul-influenced sound. Once again featuring the lead vocals and guitar of Garrett Dutton aka G. Love, bassist Jimi "Jazz" Prescott, and drummer Jeffrey "Houseman" Clemens, Sugar was produced by Los Angeles' Robert Carranza. Carranza, who has previously worked with such eclectic acts as Ozomatli, Jack Johnson, Matt Costa, and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, has a knack for capturing a band's live, organic aesthetic, and Sugar is no exception. Together, G. Love and Carranza have crafted an earthy, tasty album that features some of the best songs the trio have ever recorded. There are a few special guests this time out, with Ben Harper and Marc Broussard adding backing vocals to "Nothing Else Quite Like Home," and trumpeter/vocalist Shamarr Allen helps spice up "Weekend Dance #2." Similarly, vocalist Kristy Lee (who appeared in the acclaimed backup singer documentary 20 Feet from Stardom) duets with G. Love on the soulful, old-school R&B number "One Night Romance." However, guest artists aside, the focal point on Sugar is the original trio and the distinctive energy, sound, and musical magic they've produced since their self-titled debut in 1994. Ultimately, whether it's the Southern funk of the title track or the roiling go-go blues of "Saturday Night," as with all of G. Love & Special Sauce's best recordings, the songs on Sugar just stick in your ears.
Made Up Mind, the second studio album from the Tedeschi Trucks Band, contrasts considerably with Revelator in that it showcases the strength of an 11-piece band willing to experiment as they assimilate inspirations -- from Stax, Muscle Shoals, Motown, Delaney & Bonnie, blues, and jazz -- and incorporate their various experiences into a new whole. Co-produced by Derek Trucks and Jim Scott, there is an increased emphasis on songwriting and more sophisticated arrangements. Susan Tedeschi and Trucks invited friends to contribute to these songs, adding perspective and finesse; they include Doyle Bramhall II, John Leventhal, Gary Louris, Eric Krasno, and Sonya Kitchell. Tedeschi's voice has developed into one of the most expressive in modern music; it's become the band's focal point, and she receives outstanding choral support from Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers. Trucks' lead and slide guitar playing have evolved, creating new possibilities for the instrument; it remains the anchor of musical direction for this massive ensemble, which also boasts a horn section, keyboards, two drummers, and four alternating bassists. It always stands out, but only dominates when the song calls for it. The title track opener is a roaring blues-rock boogie. Tedeschi wails atop punchy gospel piano from Kofi Burbridge and a ripping slide guitar solo with horns blazing. A funky clavinet introduces the Sly Stone-inspired "Misunderstood." Trucks' silvery wah-wah guitar drives chunky horn fills, a grooving B-3, and tough vocal exchanges between the vocalists. Tedeschi and Saunders Sermons duet on the fingerpopping soul tune "Part of Me," which recalls Motown's early years; his sweet falsetto is the perfect foil for her grainy contralto. Trucks' guitar fills accent the call and response vocals in the second half, and the Northern soul melody is contrasted by a grittier Stax-style horn chart. The ballads -- the spiritually poignant "It's So Heavy" and the devastating, broken love song "Sweet and Low" -- with their subtleties and canny arrangements display a real TTB strength. It is no mean feat to deliver music this intimate and personal with such a large ensemble. On the rockers, everybody is engaged at a heightened level, as in the funky, grimy, blues-rock strut of "Whiskey Legs" and the off-the-rails roil of "The Storm." On the latter, hard rock, blues, and jazz intertwine, and Trucks gets the opportunity to spiral off into the exploratory void. Closer "Calling Out to You" is simply his National steel guitar caressing Tedeschi's voice in a tender love song. Made Up Mind is tight; it maintains the gritty, steamy, Southern heart displayed on Revelator, but the growth in songwriting, arrangement, and production is immeasurable. Everything these players have assimilated throughout their individual careers is filtered through a group consciousness. When it expresses itself musically, historical and cultural lineages are questioned and answered incessantly in the tension of their dialogue, creating a sound that is not only instantly recognizable, but offers a nearly limitless set of sonic possibilities.
Pretty Lights returns with A Color Map of the Sun, Derek Vincent Smith's first album of new material in over three years. Considering that Smith released three albums in 2010, it wouldn't be surprising if he had taken some time off, but he spent most of the time between that output and Color Map recording with musicians in Brooklyn, New Orleans, and his own studio. After pressing the results of the sessions on vinyl and sampling them, Smith came up with an even more organic version of the Pretty Lights sound that he describes as a "multi-medium map of my mind and self." Songs such as the dreamy collages "Yellow Bird" and "Press Pause" showcase his flair for psychedelic layers, while "Prophet" and "Let's Get Busy" reflect the harder, more danceable side of his music.
Only three studio releases in a career that stretches back nearly 20 years doesn't indicate a band with a lot of initiative. But Brooklyn's Lettuce collective aren't a full-time project and seem to have saved their energy and creativity for this terrific, longish 70-minute set. It's firmly in their tradition of old-school funk, but here they have tightened and expanded their approach, recording an album that shifts from one highlight to the next without stylistically repeating themselves, an anomaly in the genre. From the grinding hard rock, horn-enhanced riff of the appropriately named "The Crusher," to the reggae and dub effects on the opening title track, the hard groove go-go of "Let It Gogo," and the Crusaders-styled jazz of the closing "Double Header," Lettuce keep the vibe tight and funky in a variety of styles. The primarily instrumental set's only cover is a workout on War's "Slipping Into Darkness," which gave frontman/drummer Adam Deitch a chance to co-write nine of the disc's 13 tracks. The seven-piece group's most recognizable names are keyboardist Neal Evans and guitarist Eric "Kraz" Krasno, both on loan from their full-time gig in Soulive. Krasno in particular cuts loose on the Zigaboo Modeliste tribute "Ziggawatt" and delivers a psychedelic kick on the driving "Jack Flask." But these players, even with occasional guests, work as a well-oiled team. They create a taut, hard rubber vibe that takes old '70s funk principals of staying in the pocket and pound out contemporary, danceable music that borrows from retro-jazz/funk/R&B/blaxploitation soundtrack influences but is never beholden to them. The Average White Band is also a touch point, especially on the handclap-driven "Do It Like You Do," the disc's only vocal. Horn arrangements such as the staccato attack on "Madison Square" are imaginative and dynamic, which brings even more sizzle to an already heated sound. The typical song length of five minutes is just long enough to set the mood, feature a solo, then move to the next track, which then repeats the process, keeping the album vibrant and capping the extended jams that tend to derail funk. This band gets it right throughout, creating riveting, razor-edged rhythmic music that's challenging and inspired both on and off the dancefloor. Here's hoping they get more prolific.
Betty Wright: The Movie is this Miami soul legend’s first album since 2001’s Fit for a King, but it’s hardly a return. During Wright’s decade away from making her own records, she was busy helping others -- including Kelly Clarkson, Joss Stone, Diddy, Keyshia Cole, and Lil Wayne -- as a songwriter, arranger, producer, and background vocalist. Here, she links up with the intrepid Roots crew and several supplemental session musicians, and she wrangles complementary appearances from Stone and the tremendously underappreciated Lenny Williams, as well as disruptive interjections from Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg. Most of the songs were either written or co-written by Angelo Morris, who has been collaborating with Wright since the late ‘80s. It’s Wright’s best-sounding album since her self-titled 1981 release for Epic, with her backing band emulating vintage soul one moment and switching it up for more modern (and wholly appropriate) sounds the next. Wright sounds terrific, navigating through the upbeat, attitudinal jams and slower, romantic cuts with finesse and strength.