ALBUMS: The Best of June 2022
Riffing on great new titles by Fantastic Negrito, Kula Shaker and Angel Olsen
June saw a number of interesting releases from Sometimes, Always — Soccer Mommy’s terrific fourth album to Welcome 2 Club XXIII, which answers the question, “What if the Drive-by Truckers wrote Southern Rock Opera about the Drive-by Truckers instead of Lynyrd Skynyrd?”
But for the Rock & Roll Globe June Review, we’re focusing on three other albums worth checking out, all with different stories to tell, some quite real, others theatrical with perhaps a bit of tongue in cheek.
There’s Fantastic Negrito’s White Jesus, Black Problems — the result of what he found looking into his own family’s history.
Kula Shaker, which was in the buzz bins and the cutout bins in the ’90s, is back with a surprisingly entertaining and quintessentially English concept album 1st Congregational Church Of Eternal Love And Free Hugs.
Angel Olsen explores new sounds while dealing with personal loss, love and being more open about who she is to great effect on Big Time.
So, let’s read on.
Fantastic Negrito’s new album, White Jesus Black Problems, has its roots in history, not just the country’s, but his own family’s.
Fantastic Negrito’s original plan for the album, a duets record with artists he listened to when he was younger, fell by the wayside due to pandemic. While in an Atlanta green room, waiting to play his first show in a while, he clicked a link on an ancestry website, which sent him down a rabbit hole that went deeper than he anticipated.
Artist: Fantastic Negrito
Album: White Jesus, Black Problems
Label: Storefront Entertainment
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
First, he found out that his father’s background was different than he’d been led to believe, which led to the album’s title. He told Louder, “My dad was born in 1905 – that’s a generation after slavery. And he was always this progressive, smart guy. I thought, if you were black at that time in America, that’s not a good thing, to be a person that’s progressive and thinking outside of the box. I understood that. He wasn’t going to cry about the injustice. He’s going to do something about it. So he made up a lie.
“And I thought that’s White Jesus Black Problems. This is very good, Dad, to create all this. I mean, you’ve seen my last name [Negrito’s offstage name is Xavier Dphrepaulezz] is, who comes up with that? So I was beside myself, I couldn’t believe it. I had to call my mother, who’s in her 80s, and give her the news.”
Then, as Negrito looked into his mother’s side of the family, he found different surprises.. As he went farther back, he saw ancestors who were free Black people in the South during the time of slavery, which was a revelation to him. He kept going.
He told Guitar World, “On my mother’s side, they came from free black folks in Virginia who came from a forbidden union of a Scottish white indentured servant and an enslaved, black African man seven generations ago.”
And so Negrito knew what his next album would be about — the lives of the interractial couple so many years ago — Elizabeth Gallamore and “Grandpa Courage”
“These were my relatives. That’s some punk rock shit. I thought it explained who I was. I thought that all my life, this is why I’ve felt the way I’ve felt. So the album had to match that audacity,” Negrito said.
Indeed, it does.
Negrito expands even further beyond the blues than he has before, adding funk and soul to the mix, his voice showing both dirty grit and gliding falsetto as he brings his great-great-great-great grandparents to life.
A glance at the titles are a reminder of the world that couple and their illegal relationship were in — “You Don’t Belong Here”, “You Better Have a Gun”, “Highest Bidder”, “Man With No Name.”
Still, the beating heart of White Jesus, Black Problems is a love story, against huge odds that shouldn’t have been there, odds that lasted in various forms for centuries after (The Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision striking down the interracial marriage ban in the same state Elizabeth and Courage met came just seven months before Negrito himself was born).
Even as Courage professes his love in the insistent “Oh Betty”, the circumstances catch in the throat (“Oh, Betty/You’ll be free in seven years while I’m still bleeding/I wonder if you’ll ever need me”).
Likewise, “Nibbadip” plays its utterly happy soul musical backing against the plain, horrible truth of Elizabeth being brought to court for being in a relationship with a Black man, with the haunting bridge (“Don’t sell me (I’m made of flesh and blood))”.
“Highest Bidder” marries the the eclectic funk that Prince worked so well with the blues in a song that is about 21st century greed, a reminder of the throughline of the slavery of old to the way those pernicious impulses of those who pushed for slavery get indulged today.
Indeed, part of what makes White Jesus, Black Problems connect isn’t just the way he tells of his seventh generation ancestors, but how the world they lived in still reverberates today.
“You Better Have a Gun” isn’t set in Elizabeth and Courage’s time, but today. Negrito doesn’t have to outline decade upon decade of economic racism though things like redlining and discriminatory lending practices. He just sings of the end result of the poverty wrought by it, again juxtaposing the words against a deceptively happy-sounding musical backing — “You better have a gun/Living in the land of God/See the red, white, and blue streaks pouring out from the sun/You better have a gun.”
It’s clear that Negrito was energized in telling this story and that energy carries over musically. Nods to various genres come and go as he’s unfraid to switch gears within a song, let alone between them.
Album opener “Venomous Dogma” starts in the psychedelic pop of the ’70s, as if Sly Stone had joined ELO, then turns into handclap blues, then into ’70s album rock and revisits all three in a little over five minutes.
“In My Head” feels like a Now That’s What I Call ’70s Soul compilation album in one song with its funk, jazz and R&B blend — and he needs only just over three minutes to pull it off this time.
A short spoken-word interlude “You Don’t Belong Here” is a reminder that even centuries later, the racism Elizabeth and Courage experienced is still manifested. A woman’s voice says things like, “Do you live here? I’ve never seen you before. Oh, you live here, really?!?!?”, in the tone of someone about to use their cellphone to call the cops on a Black person who’s birdwatching, delivering a package as part of their job, walking for exercise or basically existing for any reason.
Throughout White Jesus, Black Problems, Negrito is as potent lyrically (the soulful “They Go Low”) and he is musically (the frantic “Trudoo”).
The album wraps up with the ballad “Virginia Soil”, a testimony to the love of his ancestors that survived and carried through generations, a note of optimism for a time when the freedoms of the kind they hoped for are now on much, much shakier ground than they ever should be.
If the “Love Wins” is too pat of a slogan these days, White Jesus/Black Problems is a tale that deserved to be told where it did indeed win.
It’s a record that touches the heart and brain while making you want to get up and move at the same time.
Fantastic Negrito, through his family research, would know far better than I how close he got to telling his family story. But listening to the honesty, love and talent on display in White Jesus, Black Problems (both the album and its accompanying full-length film), it’s hard not to think Grandma Elizabeth and Grandpa Courage would be anything other than honored and proud.
Somewhere on an old ’90s compilation or mixtape, you might have found, nestled somewhere mixed in with Cornershop, Spacehog and Tracy Bonham, the presence of Kula Shaker.
The band’s 1996 debut album, K, was a double platinum hit in the U.K. and a couple of its songs — “Tattva” and “Hey Dude” reached the alternative charts in the States.
Artist: Kula Shaker
Album: 1st Congregational Church of Eternal Love and (Free Hugs)
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The band couldn’t build off that. Part of the reason was that frontman Crispian Mills had a knack for shooting himself in the foot in interviews. Most notable was a 1997 NME interview in which the privileged Mills, who grew up in an English quivalent of a family full of Hollywood notables, basically thought the swastika could be reclaimed by its sources from the Nazis. Spoiler alert: It can’t, which is something Mills himself realized and admitted to soon enough in an apology.
The other was that the eventual follow-up — 1999’s Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts — just wasn’t that great. It sounded really good, thanks to the production from Bob Ezrin (who was brought on board after failed efforts with two other producers). But the combination of pot haze and would-be Indian mysticism just couldn’t hold together without the songs, although its cover looked good in cutout bins.
And so Kula Shaker faded from view, breaking up for five years as Mills attempted other musical projects. Since 2007, the band has released four albums while Mills has also worked in the family business, co-writing and directing a pair of films.
The newest album, and first in six years, carries the unwieldy title of 1st Congregational Church of Eternal Love and (Free Hugs). Given what some folks might remember of Kula Shaker, a title like that might induce eyerolls.
But what actually unfolds is an often catchy concept album of a very English sort. Clearly Mills had some Pretty Things, Kinks and Small Faces in his collection as a youth.
Set in a fictional village church, a battle between good-and-evil, set more as love-and-fear, takes place over its runtime.
Again, I can see some of your eyes rolling, especially if I add that the band is still rooted in the psychedelic and classic rock of their youth.
But this is the product of a band whose members range in age from 47 to 51, where the snotty hubris of being in their 20s has been replaced by craft and intelligence. Unlike the potholes (pun not intended) of some prior albums, Kula Shaker has put together an album with a higher ratio of songs that stick.
“Whatever It Is (I’m Against It)” is a statement against apathy that would have fit right in as hit single material on K. First single “The Once and Future King” puts the band squarely in Pink Floyd territory — the Waters/Gilmour kind, not the Barrett one. “Hometown” takes a trip through the garage.
The Wheel of Influences lands on Bob Dylan for the engaging “Where Have All the Brave Knights Gone?” The lads party like it’s 1968 on “The Gingerbread Man” and step into the garage on “Hometown.” One can almost picture the video with dancing girls with thick eyeliner and mascara, gogo boots and frosted lipstick for “108 Ways to Leave a Narcissist.”
Despite the framing device, not every song sticks to the concept, although Mills & Co. don’t completelyabandon it like the Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper.
“After the Fall, Pt. 2 & 3” is the song where evil is defeated. It segues from spaghetti western opening to throwing in a sitar here, a Mellotron there and, wait, is that some prog?
If Kula Shaker remains indebted to their influences as ever, they manage to convert that debt into some songs with hooks that feel lived in, rather than sounding like they just grabbed some Late 60s Rocker costume from Party City.
The album could have benefited from some tightening, to be sure. And the droll framing skits don’t always add much, although there is a funny kicker at the end when the choir mistress reveals how she’s packed the church’s upcoming movie nights with her favorite films.
But there’s enough songcraft here to show there’s still life in the bongwater resin-covered warhorse.
Angel Olsen never stopped being busy in recent years, releasing 2019’s stellar, artsy All Mirrors then its more intimate reboot as Whole New Mess the following year. Then 2021 saw the release of Aisles, an EP of ’80s covers, the fantastic “Like I Used To” single with Sharon Van Etten and a final repackaging of the All Mirrors material in Song of the Lark and Other Far Memories (both albums, remixes, B-sides and the like).
But she was also busy away from her career, in the best and worst ways. Coming off the relationship breakup that fueled All Mirrors/A Whole New Mess, the still closeted Olsen found a new partner.
Artist: Angel Olsen
Album: Big Time
★★★★1/4 (4.25/5 stars)
She came out as queer, first to friends, then her adoptive parents, then publicly via her Instagram in April 2021. Still in love and freed of the weight of the closet, things were looking up. It didn’t last long. Within days, her father died, followed a couple months later by her mother.
That bittersweet mix of life events fueled the writing and recording on Big Time. Olsen went into the studio shortly after her mother’s passing ready to pause the sessions if she needed. The safe, welcoming environs of the studio and the people she was working with and the process of creating material she felt good about kept her from needing it.
The result is another winning album in Olsen’s ongoing string of them. This time, Olsen dips her toes into countrypolitan territory, bathing her vision of Americana in life, love and loss.
The album doesn’t waste time in getting to contrasts, starting with the lightly soulful breakup song “For All The Good Times” (“And I’ll always remember you/Just like a friend/And the way that you said, as heavy as lead/’You’ve always known how to get straight to my head.'”). It’s no surprise that Olsen considered offering it to Sturgill Simpson,
It leads into the unabashed love buoyantly going through the country waltz of the title track, written with her partner Beau Thibodeaux.
The album finds comfort in grief, as in the subdued loveliness of “Dream Thing”, which anyone who had dreams where they’re in a conversation with a departed loved one can attest.
There’s the emotional “This Is How It Works”, written about the phone calls Olsen used to make to her mother, which has a sway of its own. It shows the deft touch Olsen and her collaborators have with keeping things subdued, but not so light that they evaporate into nothing coming out of speakers. Be it a pedal steel here or an organ there, there’s always something to keep the songs tethered.
Likewise, Olsen’s in terrific voice throughout,but she avoids the temptation for over-the-top belting, cutting deep with a scalpel rather than trying to use a sledgehammer.
There’s a defiance to “Ghost On”, which depending on how one’s own ears hear it, could be taken as a statement to the other half of a bad relationship or to herself. It’s a horn section away from being a great lost track from Cat Power’s 2006 classic The Greatest or, going farther back, something that Dusty Springfield would have loved to have sunk her teeth into.
“Go Home” is about Olsen growing into a new person in her mid 30s, urging herself not into the past, but a new home — where family, chosen and blood, are the ones who are most open to her best, most open self.
Olsen’s openness hasn’t just had the benefits of not hiding her sexuality. Not that she’s ever been closed off as a writer, but there’s a power and determination to a song like the stellar “Right Now” (the album’s best song) which lands with even more punch.
Olsen may have been “tired of being tired”, as she sings early on, but by album’s end, she’s at a place where she can handle the grief, the love or whatever else gets thrown at her.
In all, Big Time is a soothing, without being cloying, view of Olsen coming even further into her own as a human being and a songwriter.
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