Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, “I Learned the Hard Way” (Daptone)
Sharon Jones really sounds like she's learned the hard way. Once a prison guard on Rikers Island, the Dap-Kings frontwoman sings as well as anyone she's ever been compared to, selling the band's retro-soul concoctions with such conviction that they sound not just urgent but also modern. She details the hard times on the tough-skinned “The Game Gets Old” and the even harder times on the recession anthem “Money,” but she's best on “Better Things,” giving an old lover the cold shoulder: “I got better things to do than remember you.” If previous Dap-Kings albums were rooted in '60s soul, “I Learned the Hard Way” jumps forward to the more orchestrated early '70s. Still working out of their makeshift studio in Brooklyn, the Dap-Kings increasingly are ambitious with their arrangements, adding syncopated piano to the title track and lustrous organ riffs to “I'll Still Be True.” As good as the band sounds, however, this is Jones' album — her hard times, her lessons learned. HHHHI — Stephen M. Deusner
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden on Thursday, May 6.
Radar Brothers, “The Illustrated Garden” (Merge)
L.A.'s Radar Brothers always have been lumped in with the slowcore slew of bands that includes the likes of Low and Codeine. But on this record a more apt comparison would be “The Soft Bulletin” Flaming Lips joined with the pensive Neil Young of “On the Beach.” Like a new friend who initially seems like a pest but whose company upon which you come to rely, the selections may not sound like much on first listen, but they sink deeper in your head with each successive spin. The album is mostly mood-driven rather than song-oriented, but once in a while a cut will sneak up on you and deliver an infectious vocal hook that prods you to sing along. Listeners can drift off to sleep with “The Illustrated Garden” playing in the background, and when they wake up they'll want to play it again, tuning in closely this time. HHHHI — Brian Greene
Usher, “Raymond v. Raymond” (La Face)
The overly hyped sixth studio album by R&B superstar Usher raises expectations a bit as “Monstar,” the first full track on the CD, impresses with tastefully rendered dance elements complete with swirling strings. It's a racy song about sex, which is typical of Usher's catalogue, but the subject matter is rendered in a fresh way. Then comes current single “Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)” and the listener is brought right back to 2008's “Here I Stand” in terms of artistic quality. Usher's last studio album didn't fail, but it suffered from a lack of originality — the songs were well produced, often entertaining modern day R&B, but that was about it. In spite of an impressively long career, Usher still hasn't created his own “Control” or “Thriller” … and no, “Confessions” wasn't it. Nevertheless, the 14 tracks here keep pace with current day R&B output. Songs such as “There Goes My Baby” with its classic riff, “So Many Girls” with its hip-hop swagger, and the gorgeous Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced ballad, “Mars vs. Venus” add up to an album worth owning. HHHII — Jerome Langston
Eberhard Weber “Colours” (ECM)
Weber's rich, rubbery, tone and minimalist and classically-influenced jazz remain unique three decades after first release. He's remained obscure, eclipsed by the far more extroverted use of a sinuous sound by Jaco Pastorius, a seminal player whose legend was sealed by an early death. Weber had been around for years before becoming the ECM house bassist, including playing on Gary Burton's “Ring” — the album that introduced Pat Metheny, and on its follow-up, “Passengers”; he and Pastorius alternated on Metheny's first two ECM solo releases. His first release as a leader, “The Colours of Chloe,” was a classic of European chamber jazz. Weber subsequently formed a stable group called “Colours” — this retrospective box set collects that band's late-'70s releases.
At its best, the music is mesmerizingly melodic, full of open spaces and intertwining organic interplay. There are extended quiet segments — ECM's languidly crystalline sound, watered-down and lobotomized, is the model for New Age music — but the music also can be intense, with Charlie Mariano's soprano sax wailing with Coltranelike intensity. The only track here that sounds like anyone else is “Bali.” Written by pianist Ranier Bruninghaus, it could be from a contemporary (Jaco Pastorius-era) Weather Report album — at least until it dives into a kind of “Steve Reich plays Gamelon” second half.
Three CDs, however beautifully packaged, are a large dose of eclectic music. But only one of the original CDs (“Silent Feet”) is available in other than mp3 format. And this is music that breathes best uncompressed. HHHHI — Peter McElhinney
The Fugs, “Be Free! The Fugs Final CD (Part 2)” (Fugs Records/Kindred Rhythm)
Yes, I know. The Fugs are a Lower East side band legendary for a trippy '60s salad of Beat poetry and satiric folk rock that goofily skewered everyone (classic song titles include “Kill For Peace,” “Group Grope” and “CIA Man” — heard in a recent Coen Brothers film). Since the mid-'80s, however, the group has counted Richmond multi-instrumentalist Coby Batty as a Fug — performing drums, percussion and vocals — so it's now at least partly local. The band always seemed more about lyrical content and performance art rather than strict musical abilities, and its latest shows the members haven't lost their playful edge — with a few lovely, heartfelt ballads as high points. The bluesy rock songs may no longer sound dangerous, but slower songs such as the Ed Sanders and Batty piece “My Darling Magnolia Tree” and the sweetly romantic “Loose Peach Gown” still pack plenty of imagistic power. Producer Hal Willner recently held a benefit in New York for 86-year-old Fug founder and poet, Tuli Kupferberg (a stroke survivor, his contributions to this album were recorded remotely), which included friends Lou Reed, Philip Glass, Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith, and Sonic Youth among others. It's a shame Kupferberg couldn't join his fellow Fugs onstage, at least for a rendition of the hypnotic album closer here, “Greenwich Village of My Dreams,” a love letter to New York that's one of Kupferberg's finest spoken-word moments and a memorable coda to a life freely lived. HHHII — Brent Baldwin