Priest Picks #16: Our Weekly Top 10
Welcome to week #16 of Priest Picks. Yet another brutal week in America comes to an end. Heavy sigh. If you’re like us, you use music as a refuge from the real world. But sometimes there’s no getting away from reality. It is in those moments when music can be most valuable—it condenses complex feelings and emotions and converts them into interactive art. It could be argued that music is better than any other medium at getting to the crux of our humanity.
1. FANTASTIC NEGRITO / Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
Based on his latest record, Fantastic Negrito (real name Xavier Dphrepaulezz*) has clearly lost his mind—but the bigger question is have you lost yours? Although this album was completed pre-everything this year, its title pretty much sums up the feelings of every human being on the planet right now (with the possible exception of extreme introverts who haven’t lost their job yet). If this was the kind of music Fantastic Negrito had coursing through his mind pre-March of this year, I really can’t imagine what is bouncing around his cranium right now. If you want to know what happens after you’ve lost your mind, I have a feeling were going to find out.
Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is an uncompromising piece of urban art that ventures into myriad musical styles, explores countless detours, and wholeheartedly embraces the “free your mind and your ass will follow” mentality so completely I can understand if some initially find it too much to absorb in one sitting. I love this shit and I even felt that way when I first listened (and I have his previous records, so I was ready for it). But the more I delved into it, the more I understood what he was getting at both musically and thematically. His core influences aren’t hard to spot: the muscular soul of late-60s James Brown, the raw gut-punch of the early Delta bluesmen, the adventurousness of his idol Prince, the collective energy of Sly & the Family Stone, the joyfulness of Stevie Wonder, and most of all, the anything-goes aesthetic of Parliament/ Funkadelic are all ingredients simmering in the melting pot on his musical stove. If you want to hear a good example of what all this amounts to musically it doesn’t take long. “Chocolate Samurai” has the sole purpose of loosening anything that’s tight so you’re ready for what’s to come. He wants you to lose you mind, free your body, get ready, eat less sugar, have more sex, and get rid of stress. It’s all pretty clear, really. The song mixes a funky bassline, some Eddie Hazel-worthy guitar, a killer piano interlude, and several delirious “What the fuck just happened?” moments to keep you alert. At one point, a little voice sneaks in under the beat and says, “I’m partying with Satan right now,” never to return. Someone has been worshipping at the altar of George Clinton that’s for sure.
But the album is not just a wild party. “I’m So Happy I Cry” is a gospel collaboration with Tank and the Bangas (both one-time winners of NPR’s Tiny Desk competition) that seems to take on debilitating depression—I’ve had so much success, why am I still so down? “How Long?” was written prior to George Floyd and Jacob Blake, but it calls for justice in black communities just the same (and includes a not so veiled reference to “the loudmouth king of the hill” as well). The rest of the record proves Negrito’s purpose is twofold. He wants to groove and he wants to inspire in equal doses. “Your Sex is Overrated” features what surely is one of the best guitar solos of 2020 so far (I only wish Brittany Howard would’ve been available to do the duet as planned.) “These Are My Friends” is exactly what it promises—celebrating the value of having true friends to fall back on when things get tough and it proves this guy can go anywhere at anytime. “Justice in America” sums up the immigrant experience in 30-seconds, “In America there is justice/Just as long as you have some money.” For the entirety of the album he seems to be torn between the essentials of life (love, sex, friends) and its realities (injustice, lies, poverty, corruption). How he gets there is what’s really interesting. To the end of the last song, Fantastic Negrito keeps you engaged in his funky, demented world; a world with countless flaws and systemic injustices, but also one with hope and love and compassion. It could take you a while to sort through the whirlwind of creativity happening, but in the end, this record will open your mind. It just has to. Or you may really lose it.
*Scrabble value of last name = 29 points without any “boost” from double/triple letter/word scores (and you can’t count the “Z” (10 points) twice since there’s only one “Z” in the bag, so the second one has to be a blank tile).
2. RZA (FT. GHOSTFACE KILLAH) / “Fighting For Equality”
RZA’s new single is from the upcoming movie Cut Throat City, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, and its purpose is telegraphed in its title. The timing is perfect and is yet another example of oppression inflicted over time—would you not boil over if this were your existence? It’s a three-minute manifesto, and keep them coming, about racial injustice:
We fightin’ for equality, we not fightin’ for your pity
We fightin’ for your right to life, the right to liberty
The right to make it on our own, you can’t take it
No! Give it to me!
SIDE NOTE: RZA has also teamed up with the Good Humor Ice Cream people to create a new jingle for its trucks. The old one, “Turkey in the Straw,” had a tarnished origin, sometimes sung with racist lyrics. The new version still sounds distinctly like a cheerful clarion call beckoning kids to wildly run into the street looking for ice cream, but it has a very subtle thumping beat that should reach kids’ ears just a split second before the truck turns the corner.
3. ADIA VICTORIA / “South Gotta Change”
Adia Victoria has been writing about her love/hate relationship with the South ever since she started writing music, so she seems uniquely qualified to demand change. Back in 2016, on her debut record, Beyond the Bloodhounds, she wrote a song called “Stuck in the South,” that explained the paradox of being black in the South. If you’re from somewhere (in her case, South Carolina), that place will always be in your DNA, for better or worse. And you shouldn’t have to abandon your home to obtain fairness and social acceptability. She wrote then: “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout Southern belles/But I can tell you somethin’ ‘bout Southern hell/When your skin give ‘em cause/To take and take.” Fast forward to 2020 and the “gothic blues” (her term) of “South Gotta Change” spells out the challenge of making racial inroads in the highly jaded South by addressing it head-on:
Stood up to the mountain, told the mountain “Say my name”
And if you’re tired of walking, let the children lead the way
Cause I love you, I won’t leave you, won’t let you slip away
Come what may, we’re gonna find a way, South gotta change
4. BETTYE LAVETTE / Blackbirds
At 74, Bettye Lavette’s voice is showing signs of giving out, but that doesn’t mean her passion is, too. And to say the least, she’s had reason to give up. In her career, she has 10 albums to her credit and eight of them have been released since she turned 54 years-old. To put it mildly, her later success has been a long time coming, but it has been well worth the wait. Starting with 2005’s stunning I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise she discovered a talent for covering songs (likely always there, but never nurtured properly). The album was full of songs, completely reinvented in most cases, by female songwriters. Sinead O’Connor, Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann, and Fiona Apple were all on the diverse menu of original sources. Since then, she’s done the same for male songwriters, British rock classics, and Bob Dylan. In the process, she’s proven herself to be a master song interpreter, not content to recycle old bankable songs, instead choosing unlikely tracks to mold and deliver with her inimitable scratchy, cracking, soulful croon. One of my all-time favorites is Elton John’s “Talking Old Soldiers” from 2007’s masterful The Scene of the Crime, a lesser-known John/Taupin creation from side two of Tumbleweed Connection that Lavette simply owns by song’s end. And she’s been reclaiming songs ever since. It’s a little surprising it took her this long to put out an album almost entirely of songs originally made famous by black female singers, but that’s the theme of Blackbirds (the only exception being Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” which inspired the collection). This time, she reinterprets Nina Simone’s “I Hold No Grudge,” Della Reese’s “Blues for the Weepers,” Ruth Brown’s “Book of Lies,”, Dinah Washington’s “Drinking Again,” and even Billie Holiday’s virtually un-coverable “Strange Fruit.” Both Lavette and Holiday had/have faced, for different reasons, a diminishing of their vocal skills. When Holiday released her penultimate album, Lady in Satin, at the age of 43, her voice was ravaged by drug addiction, her soul beaten down. But somehow she still managed to sound convincing and powerful despite those facts. In the end, she could still inhabit a song. The same goes for Lavette. Her “deterioration” is natural in origin, thankfully, but she still manages to blow through her physical limitations in order to find the deep core of each of these songs. And in almost every case, she finds it.
5. MOLLY TUTTLE / …but I’d rather be with you
Molly Tuttle is an acclaimed guitar and banjo player, who by the age of 25 had already won awards for her playing from the Bluegrass Music Association and the Americana Music Association. So she can play—that’s a given. But she can sing, too. She’s got a small, but charming voice and an ear for a tune to which she can bring something new. So credit the pandemic for …but I’d rather be with you, her new all-covers album released recently. I am usually not a big fan of covers albums unless they are done by masters of the craft like Joe Cocker, Johnny Cash, or our friend Bettye Lavette, who was mentioned moments ago. Molly’s album is a rare exception. You’d think a now 27-year-old might have a more limited range of artists to pick from, but as you will see, she ventures all over the map. And you may not find a more consistent, pleasing, and downright listenable covers record this year. I’m enjoying the shit out of it. I like it so much I thought I’d give a short overview of each song:
“Fake Empire” (The National) – A pretty, less brooding version of one of the National’s best songs. A relatively straight reading, but it sounds nice with Molly’s restrained playing and sweet voice.
“She’s a Rainbow” (The Rolling Stones) – A female take on this song makes sense and it’s super well done, if a little rushed (I would love to hear another take, but slowed down). But in the end, this is a guitar showcase. Molly’s playing here is jaw-droppingly good—complex yet simple at the same time. You will listen again and again as I have in amazement.
“A Little Lost” (Arthur Russell) – Her source material digs deep and this is proof. One of the best songs on the record is a gorgeous number from the mercurial Arthur Russell. I went back to my vinyl copy of the song from The World of Arthur Russell to compare and both are equally stunning, but in different ways. It’s hard not to compare Tuttle with Sarah Jarosz, another virtuoso musician with an eye for a good cover. Both have the ability to transform a song without losing its core heart and soul. Stunning.
“Something on Your Mind” (Karen Dalton) – It’s not surprising she has an affinity for the folk songs of Dalton, they seem right in Tuttle’s wheelhouse. Dalton’s vocals were admittedly an acquired taste (that I have happily acquired), but this version brings a more accessible front porch approach that’s appreciated. It really highlights what a great song it is stripped to its core. Props to Tuttle for realizing that.
“Mirrored Heart” (FKA Twigs) – I wouldn’t have thought to pair Tuttle’s Americana background with the fragile art-pop of England’s FKA Twigs, but the song turns out to be one of the album’s highlights. I imagine Tuttle realized the song’s crumbling foundation could be rebuilt using her own instrument and voice. And she was right.
“Olympia, WA” (Rancid) – Yep, she’s now covering Rancid, a band she loved as a young girl, and the song is a remarkable reinvention. She takes the usual Rancid ska-punk style (from their massive breakthrough …And Out Come the Wolves and strips it down for parts, only to reassemble it into a jaunty acoustic number that accentuates the lyrics and downplays the gritty street punk vibe of the original. How it works I don’t know, but it does.
“Standing on the Moon” (The Grateful Dead) – She makes a point to say she isn’t a Deadhead, but being from San Francisco (Jerry Garcia went to her high school), she felt connected to them. This track from one of the Dead’s later period records, Built to Last, could be the highlight of this album for me (she used a lyric for the album’s title, so perhaps she agrees). I do like Jerry’s voice on this song quite a bit as well, but Molly lends it an innocence that positively radiates youthful charm.
“Zero" (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) – The kid liked to rock back in the day and Karen O isn’t a bad choice for her adoration, but this is one song on the record that doesn’t quite take off. I don’t like when a cover seems like a novelty, even if it wasn’t intended as such.
“Sunflower, Vol. 6” (Harry Styles) – A song from Harry’s latest record, Fine Line, which makes it an odd choice to cover so soon, but it’s super pretty in Molly’s capable hands and strips out much of the original’s production tricks to reveal a shy, blushing girl hiding in a field of wildflowers.
“How Can I Tell You” (Cat Stevens) – A gem from side two of the Teaser and the Firecat, this seems like an easy choice to fit Molly’s style—and it is pretty—but she’s never going to beat Cat Stevens at his own game. If she breaks this one out during a hot summer night in Nashville, however, be prepared to melt.
6. IRON WIGS / Your Birthday’s Cancelled
Chicago hip-hop is always kicking out great new artists and collaborative projects and Iron Wigs is a new favorite. On Your Birthday’s Cancelled (great title) Chicago’s Vic Spencer and Verbal Kent team up with UK rapper/producer Sonnyjim to deliver a relaxed, dizzying flow of supremely clever rapid-fire images that demand your total attention. There are so many great lines and rhymes throughout, you’d best lock in or risk missing a well-crafted couplet delivered like it’s nothing, really. “I thought about skipping town/Considered the Galapagos/Came to my senses/Found other profit streams more logical.” And Iron Wigs doesn’t settle for the usual trunk-busting beats either. They rap over looped jazz samples, flute solos, and other intricately constructed yet highly atypical backdrops. These subtle grooves let the words lead the way and the stories unfold. The US/UK connection leads to references as diverse as John Cusack, Anthony Bourdain, and Scrappy-Doo to Banksy and Argentine football legend Diego Maradona. There’s no predicting where the action will take you next and what it will reference. There’s also a disproportionate amount of people getting punched in the face or otherwise tormented. (“How about a back massage/With a bat in the garage?”) But it’s all in good, intelligent fun in the end.
7. TOOTS & THE MAYTALS / Got to Be Tough
Lately, I’ve been party to the “Mt. Rushmore” craze, which asks the hypothetical question, “Who would be on the Mt. Rushmore of ______.” We then fill in the blank with the question du jour. For example, “Who would be on the Mt. Rushmore of the Blues?” (I then offer: Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters—and the group debates the merits of everybody’s opinions and then settles on a final four). It’s a good way to pass the time around the fire pit and you can pretty much do it for any subject, not just music. We once tried it for breakfast cereals, but soon grew tired of the discussion, realizing we had pushed the concept too far. But one musical genre where it works very well is reggae music. Everyone is going to put Bob Marley up there, so that’s a done deal. And Jimmy Cliff soon follows as an indisputable choice. Then Peter Tosh takes the third spot with relative ease. (Chiseling a spliff into a granite mountainside may be difficult, but worth it in the long run.) So, who takes the always difficult “fourth spot” you think? This is normally where the debate gets fierce and tempers rise. Some might offer up a legendary figure like Alton Ellis or Dennis Brown or Desmond Dekker, maybe even Sizzla, or possibly Marcia Griffiths to provide some gender diversity. Maybe we solve the problem by putting legendary Studio One producer Lee “Scratch" Perry in the final spot? A case could be made, for sure. But in the end, at least on my personal mountain, that fourth spot is going to Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals fame. He’s an all-time legend in Jamaica, has written several of reggae’s greatest songs (including one of my favorite songs in any genre, “Pressure Drop”) and is generally considered the inventor of the term reggae (via his 1968 song “Do the Reggay”). Not to mention that Funky Kingston ranks with the greatest reggae albums ever made. If that wasn't enough, he’s still recording reggae music pretty much everyday in his home studio (hilariously called “The Reggae Center,” which implies a sophisticated recording setup, but is actually a dilapidated shack in his backyard) at the age of 77 (this according to a really good article about him in this month’s in Rolling Stone). You’ve got to give him some credit for remaining so steadfastly immersed in his craft when he could be resting on his laurels.
It’s doubtful that Toots’ newest album, Got to Be Tough, will be mistaken for a reggae classic, but it’s still damn good. For a album recorded in a dumpy shack it still sounds pretty hot, and its messages of peace, love, and understanding are spot-on for today’s divisive world. After the first three songs, I was elated with what I was hearing. “Drop Off Head,” featuring Toots on bass, Cyril Neville on percussion, and the legendary Sly Dunbar on drums, locks into an intense groove featuring Zak (Ringo’s son) Starkey on guitar (he’s not just a drummer clearly). A foundation of tolerance and peace has been laid, now all you have to do is walk on it. The album’s most powerful track is the Stax-esque “Just Brutal” which laments oppression (“Everything you do is just brutal!”) and proposes loving hearts as the answer. Yes, it sounds simplistic, but you know it truly is the only answer. But the album is not delusional either, proposing only high-minded solutions. “Got to Be Tough” warns the road will not be easy. “Things may be hard, so hard, but we have to overcome it.” This tone continues until Toots presents a re-imagining of Bob Marley’s classic, “Three Little Birds,” with Ziggy Marley making a guest appearance. The simple lilt of Bob’s original is gone and in place a fleshed-out, less bouncy tempo steps in. At first, I was a little taken aback, but I’ve now fallen for this version, too. Toots thankfully doesn’t go too long without throwing a raging party for his family and friends and “Having a Party” is its soundtrack. I initially dismissed it as a throwaway until I imagined it coming on at one of my own parties and livening up the place. Then it all made sense. Toots, forever the realist and with a great sense of obligation to his community, ends the album with “Struggle,” which again reinforces the albums key message: don’t give up the fight. (His old friend Bob would nod in approval if still alive). We must stick together, we must party together, but we can’t forget the struggle that remains.
8. JOHN COOPER CLARKE / Word of Mouth: The Very Best of John Cooper Clarke
I’m in the middle of a semi-obsession with the “music” of John Cooper Clarke, Britain’s resident and reigning modern beat poet (sometimes called “The Emperor of Punk Poetry”). I’ve been reading his poetry, watching videos, listening to his songs and performances, and buying books of poetry he’s written. Most recently, The Luckiest Guy Alive, a collection of his most recent work, which he wrote some 30 years past the peak of his popularity. While there’s no need to go in so deep, I do recommend highly spending 10-15 bucks on a CD copy of Word of Mouth: The Very Best of John Cooper Clarke. I cannot get enough of it lately mainly because he’s just so sharp-witted, darkly irreverent, and strangely compelling. He’s the best performer of the night at every poetry
slam he’s ever attended. “(I Married A) Monster From Outer Space” finds JCC encountering an alien who he ends up marrying: “I fell in love with an alien being, whose skin was jelly, whose teeth were green, she had the big bug eyes and the death-ray glare/Feet like water wings, purple hair/I was over the moon, I asked her back to my place/Then I married the monster from outer space.” "Twat" is a classic British takedown only a back-alley beat poet could devise, “Your dirty name gets passed about when something goes amiss/Your attitudes are platitudes, just make me wanna piss/What kind of creature bore you, was it some kind of bat/They can’t find a good word for you, but I can…TWAT!” Without the cadence of a master performer and the tone of a pissed punk poet, it loses something in the translation, but hopefully you get the gist. He covers a waterfront of topics—absolutely nothing is off limits. Sometimes it’s barbed-wire love like “I Wanna Be Yours” (which was covered by the Arctic Monkeys on their album, AM) and sometimes it’s a blitzkrieg of profanity (“Evidently Chickentown,” whose 70+ “fucks” from his original poem have been replaced with the word “bloody” on the CD). Not everything works, of course, but this is a delightful introduction to a true British original.
9. GEN POP / “Bell Book Candle”
I admit it—I can be a soft touch. So it goes with “Bell Book Candle” by Olympia, Washington’s Gen Pop. I like how the guy sings the chorus. Sue me. That’s pretty much it. If you must know, they’ve been around since 2016 and have their debut full-length coming out in October (on Post Present
Medium Records, a label run by a member of the band No Age). Their bio claims they are not “high brow” or “low brow,” rather “unibrow” and I appreciate a good press kit joke as much as the next guy. Loosely, they’re a little garage-punk and a little classic power-pop all in one, which I initially found to be a messy marriage. But when something catches your ear, you go with it. Not everything needs explaining. If you’re a movie buff, I’m not sure if this song has any relation to the 1958 Jimmy Stewart vehicle Bell, Book and Candle, but if I find out I’ll let you know. (You do the same, please.) This track will take you less than three minutes to preview, so hopefully you’ll see why I like it. If you don’t, just move on and we can forget the whole sordid affair.
10. “THE 10 SPOT”
MUSIC IN TV SHOWS, VOLUME 1:
THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY
If I hear a show uses music well, I’m generally on board regardless of the content. So, today I introduce yet another regular feature in what I’ve decided to call “The 10 Spot” on our weekly list. Today, we’ll take a look at Netflix’s two-year old series, The Umbrella Academy.
The Umbrella Academy is well out of my usual wheelhouse. I’m not a big superhero movie fan and generally steer clear of anything comic book related. But there are exceptions to every rule, of course, and The Umbrella Academy, adapted from the comic book series of the same name by someone named Steve Blackman, is one of them. I came for the music, but ended up binging the first two seasons over a two-week period because I was drawn in by the concept, the characters, the visually stunning cinematography, the off-beat writing, and the music. The concept is simple: In 1989, 43 women gave birth simultaneously although none of them knew they were pregnant when the day started. (Go on.) An eccentric billionaire travels the world trying to adopt the children and ends up with seven of them. Turns out all of them have super powers of some sort (I won’t go into what they are, but not the normal Marvel crap). Their father is a madman, their mother is a robot, and their butler is a monkey. Now you’re caught up. Oh, did I mention they’re trying to stop the apocalypse? No matter, that’s not even my favorite part of the show. In the end, I wasn’t captivated by the epic final showdowns as much as I was by the stuff building up to those moments: character development, the tension that comes with not knowing what the fuck is going on, set decoration, special effects, the amusing peculiarity of it all.
Musically, there have been many inspired choices. A wild gunfight in a donut shop plays out to They Might Be Giant’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” A scene where two characters get high huffing nitrous is matched with Marva Whitney’s lost soul nugget “Unwind Yourself.” Another fight scene uses Leslie Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows” to add delicious contrast. Marty Robbins’ “Love is Blue” plays as a character trains to be an assassin. “Pepper” by the Butthole Surgers plays during an LSD trip (genius). I could go on. It’s all very Tarantino-esque. Especially when they used the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” during a violent altercation with a team of albinos from the Swedish mafia. If you are even remotely intrigued, check it out. While I didn’t initially like the ending to season two, I did like the second ending that happened when I wasn’t expecting it to happen. Like any good adventure, you should never know where it’s going and when it will end. Either way, it’s best to have some great music to listen to while you’re taking the trip.
That’s all you get this week. Seek justice, be kind, and buy records. In that order. See you later this week with another installment in our Pickled Priest Yearly Mixtape series.