The Best New Releases I Heard in 2016: Q3 | Willie Edward Smith

The synthesis of it all grooves and rocks like the past, the present, and the future had a stiff drink and lost track of time.

By July, the surreality of the first six months of the year had me questioning the validity of reality itself. A generational crossroads was on the horizon. Musicians who shaped my childhood were gone, and, alternately, an homage to the dark nature of that time, Stranger Things, was the hottest commodity in the realm of pop culture. As if to pile on to the trainwreck of macabre nostalgia, the world was reintroduced to the Super Friends, Zack Snyder–style. The belabored X-Men franchise tried to its their haphazard revisionist history of the series into a ‘80s Day-Glo package. Neither franchise recognized the importance of the all-powerful theme-song. That said, should Ghostbusters get some credit for attempting a remake of the original theme? Of course not. The year seemed merciless and relentless in its disappointment; best to be consistent.

Summer was the point of no return. It was time to stop looking back at an era defined by those we had been losing. The societies of the world have to push forward, embrace the visionaries we still have, inspire those to come, and commence with focusing on that ever-elusive Now of which I am so found. My existential take on the highlights of a year on its downhill slope…

Summer 2016

Maxwell | blackSUMMER’Snight (Columbia)

Now, the title of Maxwell’s third album, seemed to gestate for ages at the time of its conception and release. In retrospect, the three years between it and its predecessor was a cat nap. Now was released 15 years ago; its follow up, BLACKSummer’snight—part one of a trilogy of albums with the same title, but different capitalization—would arrive eight years later. The three parts of the trilogy were released in quick succession, but here I was in 2016, seven years after BLACKsummer’snight, 20 years removed from Maxwell’s debut, wondering if he had resumed his Sade-like sabbatical. Then came the official debut of “Lake by the Ocean,” his new single, being played* by the man himself, through his cell phone, into another cell phone’s camera, on a Facebook live stream.

Given his chosen method of debuting the track, it’s easy to see why his albums might take a little longer to complete and distribute in the digital era. That being the case, blackSUMMER’Snight was worth the wait. Like “Lake by the Ocean,” the album showcased the signature sophistication for which Maxwell and his collaborators were known. The jazz and fusion elements that permeated previous works have evolved and tapped into the wellspring of shimmering embellishments of modern production trends. The effect sounds like audible lens flares, and the result is a refreshed sound that clears the haze of his first three albums. This is a leap forward from 2009’s BLACKsummer’snight, which got itself above the fog of those three release by going further back in time stylistically. 2016’s BlackSUMMER’Snight is the next logical step in Maxwell’s journey from candlelit intimacy to horizon-eyed majesty.

* By play, I literally mean he hit “play” on the phone and sat and let it play while trying not to make much eye contact with the camera phone recording it.

Spill | Through the Seasons (s/r)

Company of Thieves was an incredible band, with one very good and one great album under their belts before they split. The fruit of their parting has been bittersweet, with vocalist Genevieve releasing the hopeful EP Show Your Colors in 2015. Guitarist Marc Walloch reached out to fans infrequently, mentioning that he would continue to work on music as a solo artist, with no particular date in mind. Eventually, he let fans know that the name of the project—Spill—and release a single in anticipation of a full-length album in 2016; The Seasons, Spill’s phenomenal debut, would quietly make its way to the public in July.

A certain elation overtook me when I first listened to Through the Seasons. It showcases a musician whose voice had only been heard as part of a collaboration, beholden to a collective identity while shining brightly on its own. Walloch’s flair for psychedelic pop was hinted at in Company of Thieves, but his knack for creating dramatic tension and cathartic swells as guitarist took the limelight. With Spill, his craftsmanship as a songwriter, arranger, and producer is undeniable.

Hearing Walloch’s baritone for the first time after years of Genevieve’s breathy, yet eternally youthful rasp was a stark departure. But as was the case with the arrangements of the songs themselves, over the course of Through the Seasons, it grows and evolves, rises and strengthens. You can’t help but feel potential being measured, cultivated, maximized. By the time I began to recognize the similarities between Walloch’s register and tone to Ari Hest or Micheal McDonald, the brilliance of his arrangements had already evoked the best memories I had of mid-’90s alternative folk-pop, and how I might imagine it would have progressed from then until now, if treated with care.

It’s not very often I hear an album and want to broadcast my affinity for it to the world because people are being denied a particular joy by not hearing it with my ears. Listening to Through the Seasons made me want to hug old friends and tell them how much they had inspired my betterment, and how seeing where they’d taken themselves contributed to growth moreover. Spill lifted my spirits in that way reminds me of the potential surrounding our lives, and how essential it is for hope.

Alex Cameron | Jumping the Shark (Secretly Canadian)

As if to do a 180-degree pivot, Jumping the Shark embraces ’80s synth-pop and acerbic deadpan, with a melodic power like few things you’ll hear trying to evoke that time period and its signature sounds. As if to contradict the title, Alex Cameron’s debut finally saw official release after three years of hard labor in the form of working the album independently by Cameron and his business partner/saxophonist Roy Molloy. Once you hear Jumping the Shark, you’ll understand why they continue to work the hell out of this record, touring globally and incurring all manner of obstacles and expenses. The strength and focus in Cameron’s voice as he delivers narratives and poetry with poise and pathos very much evokes two of our fallen greats well before their passing. It also conveys the passion he has for the pursuit to which he’s chosen to dedicate his life.

The persona Cameron adopts on the cover is that of a struggling lounge-type singer. You might mistake that as to mean the songs are tongue-in-cheek, but the satirical aspect of the album is acerbic and poignant. Even when the tunes play on Muzak, the lyrics dig into the depths of social critique and character assassination. It becomes crystal clear that sometimes the harshest truths are easier to tell when robed in some sort of humor. It turns out the joke’s on you if you don’t realize the seriousness of protagonist’s convictions, and the slick ways Cameron makes the sonic limits of their era-specific genre evoke precisely the right emotion. That takes talent and imagination, something Cameron and his collaborators have in spades, to match their determination and wit. Jumping the Shark has intentionally dated moments, songs that sound like they belong on a record from decades gone by. It also has songs that could have been released decades ago that would have sounded like music from the future then, and still sound futuristic now. Hopefully, the support of Secretly Canadian and labelmates like Mac Demarco and Angel Olson will open more doors for Alex Cameron and Roy Molloy to bring us more time-displaced psychological deconstruction. You can bet your bottom dollar they’ll chronicle it every step of the way with candor, humor, and unfiltered humility.

Doyle Bramhall II | Rich Man (Rich Man/Concord)

I’d all but lost hope that Doyle Bramhall II would put out another album after releasing his third solo LP Welcome in 2001. His lineage and resume had him pegged as the heir apparent of the blues-rock revival, but there was always more to Doyle than a monolithic adherence to genre. At a time when he was expected to emerge as the next Clapton-esque figure, he embraced aspects of neo-soul and psychedelic pop, playing the blues but not making it the focus. It was refreshing and bold, but there wasn’t a large market for it. Music in the late ’90s was just as segregated as society in the grand scheme of things. The Johnny Langs and Kenny Wayne Shepherds of the world were given the blues torch, to be followed by the John Mayers of the world, while Doyle collaborated with legends and contemporaries sans the white-hot spotlight of expectation. Bramhall avoided the hype machine and became your favorite guitar player’s favorite guitar-player with no wares to sell of his own.

Then came the end of the drought. In my mind, I can almost see Doyle giving all the other would-be blues-rock-funk-soul men the last 15 years to get their acts together. Rich Man is a user’s guide to creating authentic bluesy-soul in modern times with no compromises. Fidelity and depth aren’t sacrificed to create artificial atmosphere; nothing is shoehorned in to fit. Because of these key choices, Rich Man works just as well, if not more so, live as it does in the studio recordings. Nothing is lost, and everything is top notch.

I had the pleasure of catching Doyle Bramhall II and band at the Old Rock House in St. Louis, where they brought the majority of the album to life with every bit of swagger and gusto they capture in high fidelity. That kind of perfection is the fruit of decades of refinement as a player and performer, in both live and studio settings. You don’t venture out supporting an album after 15 years without the utmost confidence you are going to deliver material and performances that justify putting yourself out there to be critiqued. The soul is smooth and sultry, the funk is pungent and sticky, the blues is weathered and resonant, and the synthesis of it all grooves and rocks like the past, the present, and the future had a stiff drink and lost track of time. When you think you’ve heard it all, Rich Man opens the gates of perception and Bramhall gives light to the psychedelic rock many fans have longed for, closing the album with a series of inward-looking out-of-body experiences. The answer is so expansive, the question gets forgotten. It is what it is, and this is where it is. By the time “Hear My Train A’ Comin’” cues up, it’s too far gone to turn around; best to go with the flow and enjoy the ride. | Willie Edward Smith

Photo by Joe Johnson/Crossroads Images

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