It’s New to Elliot: as suggested by Paige Harpin

Paige and I have our friend Dustin Harmsen to thank for getting us to know each other. We played on his record Papoose together, and then he asked us to both be in his band, The Electrophones. That band wouldn’t quite be the same if we didn’t have Paige playing keyboards and lending her amazing voice to those weird rock songs. And for me, having not been in enough bands with women, she brings a tough feminine energy that a band like that needs.

Paige recently put out a record with her band, The Paige Harpin Group. It is out now and you can buy it from her. It’s all jazz, torch songs and smooth stuff like that. Paige’s voice was designed to sing that type of music, and it’s very cool that she’s going for it so hard, especially after being a new mom. And don’t forget about The Electrophones — we’ll be back in the near future.

Paige did a great thing for me by giving me all jazz and soul records this week. They are all awesome, I just didn’t love them all.

Billie Holiday — Lady Sings the Blues

Even after years of sporadically trying, my brain still isn’t quite wired in order to properly connect with much jazz. It all sounds warm and pleasant, but very little clicks with me in the ways that I’m used to music doing for me. It might be an issue with dynamics and not getting enough big loud parts from jazz, or it could be that I just don’t know what intricacies to seek.

That might also be the case with Lady Sings the Blues, but I’m willing to forgive the record for not bowling me over musically because I still got to hear 37 minutes of Billie Holiday singing, and that is a gift for which we should always be thankful. Her voice lifts even the more forgettable songs to heights they don’t even deserve to go. She is that good. And apparently this record is regarded as being from a time when she had sort of worn down her voice — I guess I can hear that a little, but good lord, we should all be so lucky to be able to sing even a quarter as good as a supposedly “worn down” Billie.

And let’s take a quick second to talk about “Strange Fruit.” That song is an American treasure, sure to be taught to future generations as a harrowing picture of one of the darkest times in our country’s dark history. To even sing about an issue such as lynching was an amazingly bold move on Billie’s part, which is crazy because, you know, people were being murdered and it was taboo to discuss it. This stupid country. Anyway, I am consistently awed by “Strange Fruit” whenever I hear it — the restraint it shows is almost perverse as it softly jabs at the soul. Billie’s words catch in her throat and then puncture your ears and your mind with their plain horror. It’s just incredible. And so was Billie.

My Opinion: 7/10

Donny Hathaway — Live

I knew next to nothing about Donny Hathaway before this, so it was nice to get familiar with someone whom Justin Timberlake referred to as the best singer of all time. JT said that and he must be right because he is very handsome. I’m not sure if Hathaway was the very best singer of all time, but a live record might not be the absolute best test for that. What I can verify is that Hathaway had a comfortable swing and a command over his crowd that never got too pushy. He asks them for a male/female singalong in “The Ghetto,” and he does it while gently encouraging the ladies to keep singing while the men do their part. All the while, he keeps things going with his electric piano and organ playing as his band jams along. They do great cover versions of “What’s Goin’ On,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” Hathaway’s own “We’re Still Friends” is a staggeringly good slow dirge. The only drag is that they really jam out on a couple songs and it gets a bit lengthy. “The Ghetto” features a three-minute conga drum solo, and that is the kind of thing you should be able to actually see and not have to just listen to. But yeah, overall this is great and I know have another guy to put in my “R&B to listen to while hanging out and pretending I’m hip” playlist.

My Opinion: 7/10

Erykah Badu — Baduizm

So now we get into the neo soul chunk of the week. I have always been a friendly partner of neo soul, in the sense that I never listen to any of it, but I absolutely support it. I suppose it’s usually just too boring for me — nice sounds that don’t move me. Erykah Badu pretty much falls into this category. In contrast to everyone else on the list this week, Badu does not sing big. The most she lets herself go is on the singles “Appletree” and “On & On,” probably because you have to project to get hits and win Grammys. But mostly she lays back and lets the unique timbre of her voice do the work. That would work if the music was constantly interesting, but it just isn’t. There’s a whole lot of that smooth keyboard sound that melts into a white noise of nothingness. The bass is okay, but usually faceless. Only when the bass gets played hard on “Certainly” and “4 Leaf Clover” do things start swinging with an oomph I need. Honestly, every record I ever review can be judged on its supply of oomph. Call me when there’s more oomph. Gimme that oomph! (or as the dearly departed comedian Harris Wittels once said…)

My Opinion: 6/10

D’Angelo — Voodoo

D’Angelo is one of those guys who, in theory, is totally cool and badass, but when actually listening to him, I want to jump off a bridge. I get that urge during almost any record that runs for 78 minutes, unless it’s The White Album or something. But Voodoo in particular was tough to sit through because of its utter lack of variety. Yes, D’Angelo was doing a unique type of neo soul at this time, and for a song or two the vibe feels right — tight drumming, gentle keyboards and D’Angelo’s soft falsetto all coming together to create good feelings. But once you’ve heard a couple songs, you’ve heard the entire record. It pretty much never changes. And when it’s 13 songs in 78 minutes, that means each song averages about six minutes, and that’s a problem when the songs essentially have no dynamic shifts. D’Angelo settles on a groove and just rides it out, so once you get bored about three minutes into a song, there’s no escaping for the next half of the song. But I’m going no lower than a 5 on this one because this is objectively good stuff, and also, THOSE ABS THO.

My Opinion: 5/10

Aretha Franklin — Aretha Sings the Blues

Before she found her place as the towering, soulful personality behind songs like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools,” Aretha messed around with blues and torch songs. When I say “messed around,” I really mean “sang the shit outta some material slightly beneath her.” There is no getting around the power of her voice, which can fit right beside sappy string arrangements and also get raspy to the tune of more brassy blues stuff. She’s ranked as one of the best singers ever because that’s probably where she belongs. But I found it difficult to connect with much of this. I have little room in my heart for that easy-listening orchestral pop stuff — it feels so much lamer than she deserves. And even the true blues songs here never become more than serviceable. It makes sense that she didn’t fully catch on with the mainstream until after this stuff. It’s good, but it has little personality (other than, you know, her astounding voice).

My Opinion: 6/10

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