I love me a good cover song. The ability to reinterpret the music of others is a longtime trend, one in which Western classical music was built upon; how could it not be, before the advent of recorded music? Indian classical perhaps summed it best with the concept of the raga, which means color. There are certain musical points you must hit for it to be the 'song,' but within that your coloring dictates your sonic chops.
When I was in college, there was this kid who used to sit in the middle of the quad with a guitar cranking through Dave Matthews' catalog. He had a good voice and could play the guitar parts well, but it was... boring. He never added any personal coloring to it. What makes a great cover is recreating the original in an entirely new context. Think Cowboy Junkies' 'Sweet Jane.' Trane's 'My Favorite Things.' Ben Harper's 'Sexual Healing.' Chet Faker's 'No Diggity.'
Nailing a song is a challenge, but an entire album of covers? New York City-based Easy Star All-Stars have built a career of it. Starting with Dub Side of the Moon, the reggae collective's take on the Pink Floyd classic, the band has gone on to produce solid attempts of Radiohead's OK Computer and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. Perhaps the old sentiment should be updated: the fourth time is a charm as Michael Goldwasser's crew brings it home with Thrillah (Easy Star).
Taking on Michael Jackson is a tough endeavor, especially with his recent passing. Yet this homage is tasteful and eloquent, avoiding modern reggae's trappings, such as vocoders and synth-based horns. Amassing 21 musicians and recorded in five countries, this truly global endeavor honors the King of Pop in an entirely unforeseen way. Bassist Yossi Fine keeps the pocket full and rich, while Victor Axelrod (a.k.a. Ticklah) is solid on clavinet and organ, Joe Tomino's drums punchy and fluid.
The foundation is so sturdy it's hard imagining vocalists not completely assaulting their assigned tracks. And so it is: Jowil and Ruff Scott demolish the African groove of 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin',' Mikey General and Spragga Benz sound wonderful on 'Thriller,' and Michael Rose's brilliance on the dubby 'Beat It' shines through. The highlights come together: Luciano, one of my favorite reggae vocalists of today, croons heartily on 'Billie Jean,' while a newcomer to my ears, Cas Haley, lays down a sensual and convincing version of 'Human Nature.'
Any day that I open a package to find a new album by the Souljazz Orchestra is a great one. Calling the Canadian outfit 'Afrobeat' feels so limiting, especially after their most brilliant album, Rising Sun, dropped in 2010; Afro-jazz cuts like 'Serenity' and 'Consecration' have remained in circulation ever since. The band leans heavy on the Nigerian sound on Solidarity (Strut), though given their heritages point to Senegal, Brazil and Jamaica. When they rip into 'Kelen Ati Leen,' a vintage '70s Afro-rock is invoked -- unsurprising, given that the entire album was recorded on an eight-track. Reggae peeks its head out in 'Jericho,' and the horns blaze heavy on 'Conquering Lion.' Undoubtedly their most diverse outing to date, Souljazz simply hasn't smoked this hard since Freedom No Go Die.
'Lese Yo Pale' is the type of track, as a DJ, that I dream about. The deep, percussion-driven Carnavel rhythm from Guadeloupe's Mas Ka Kle is rounded out by a romping chant and entrancing flute. While my go-to on Sofrito: International Soundclash (Strut), this excellent survey of African, South American and Caribbean dance tracks is filled with club-ready killers. It's rare for a compilation to have this many soulful cuts, but that is a Strut speciality. Check out the hypnotizing soukous guitar on Kiland et L'Orchestre Mabatalai's 'Pour Chercher le Magot,' as well as La Pesada's 'Cumbia y Tambo' and Midnight Groovers' 'O Ti Yo' for certified lose-it-in-the-club monsters.
I had assumed receiving four-disc boxed sets in the mail was a thing of the past, until We Intend To Cause Havoc! (Now Again) by Zambian garage band Witch appeared. Collecting a few dozen psychedelic Afro-rock and -funk -- Zamrock -- singles from 1972-77, this collection spans a musically impressive gamut of social commentary with love for American rock guitarists. While heavy on the six-string, Witch's melodies borrow well from R&B, with harder edge songs, like 'Lazy Bones,' maintaining a high level of soul. Witch's balladry proves lackluster, but rock is where this band excels, and will be the tracks you turn to when skimming the playlist.