Following featured vocal credits on international hits by Naughty Boy (“La La La”) and Disclosure (“Latch”) and “Money On My Mind,” which topped the charts in the United Kingdom, “Stay With Me” is the latest single to preview Sam Smith’s solo debut album In The Lonely Hour. It’s also his first solo offering in the United States, where Capitol Records has promoted him as the successor to previous British exports Adele and Emeli Sandé. As such, “Stay With Me” features a sparse arrangement of keys, hi-hat, and tambourine, which almost predictably allows room for the backing of a full gospel choir as Smith pleads to extend his one-night stand against his better judgment, knowing “deep down … this never works.” Smith’s voice is soft and smooth over the accompaniment, but doesn’t quite match the level of emotion felt in the ballads featured on his previous Nirvana EP. Nevertheless, the song astutely portrays another, less common aspect of loneliness that will hopefully allow for both variety and cohesiveness on In The Lonely Hour.
There is little question that Pharrell Williams was a dominating force in 2013, with feature credit on big hits from Daft Punk and Robin Thicke and production work for a wide array of artists including Beyoncé, Jay Z, John Legend, Miley Cyrus, Aloe Blacc, and Mayer Hawthorne. By signing to Columbia Records late in the year before a chart-topping promotional push for “Happy,” originally included in the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack among several other Pharrell productions, his continued reign into 2014 has become as secured as the hat usually adorning his head.
G I R L, Pharrell’s sophomore solo album following 2006’s In My Mind, comes primarily packed with smooth R&B grooves that pair Pharrell’s easygoing falsetto with rhythmic bass lines, catchy guitar riffs, and a dash of hand-clapping. This recalls the sound of Justin Timberlake’s similarly-hyped The 20/20 Experience, but with the ego and track lengths reigned in, the album doesn’t lose itself in its pretension. Violin melodies are used sparingly to good effect: a brief rising line introduces the album before Pharrell’s utterance of the word “different” interrupts and cues a heavier beat in “Marilyn Monroe;” sweeping lines work well as a representation of the titular “Gust of Wind.” Background vocalizations, indiscernible vocal loops, and hand-claps are also placed in moderation, providing a bouncy and buoyant underbelly to tracks like “Brand New” and “Come Get It Bae,” which feature Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus respectively and sound in tune with each artist’s latest albums. More unusual sounds come in the percussive African influence of “Lost Queen” and the Stevie Wonder-recalling, Caribbean vibe of “Know Who You Are,” adding a splash of variety and intrigue that almost makes the simple-yet-euphoric production of “Happy” feel too lightweight by comparison.
More intriguing still are some of the melodic choices throughout the record. Album opener “Marilyn Monroe” goes from sixths in the prechorus to building from the tonic in the chorus before ending on the supertonic, showing that Pharrell is as “different” from his fellow contemporaries as his girl is from the norm. Additionally, while Daft Punk’s vocals in the chorus are fairly traditional, Pharrell eschews the tonic in the verses in favor of dominant and minor sevenths; the atypical harmonies on the prechorus to album closer “It Girl” provide another compositional treat. On occasion, the falsetto deliveries seem to veer sharp of the intended note, ranging from seemingly unintentional (Timberlake’s entrance in “Brand New”) to deliberately humorous (as Pharrell gasps “you’re leaving me … you can’t be serious!” in “Hunter”).
Romance is a main theme of the album, but it seems as if Pharrell learned from the blowback from last year’s controversial hit “Blurred Lines,” opting to be more gentlemanly. Even on “Gush,” easily the album’s most sexually explicit offering, he questions his urges, noting “my mama didn’t raise me that way” before informing his partner after mentioning how he could treat her well: “I don’t want to mislead you: tonight I think I wanna get dirty, girl,” almost as if asking for permission — a welcome change from the lack of agency given to women in many recent pop hits. Pharrell also follows suit from Kanye West’s “Bound 2” video, sprinkling lighthearted motorcycle metaphors in “Come Get It Bae” and “Lost Queen.” However, much of G I R L feels more upbeat and celebratory of women than aggressive and flirtatious. In “Marilyn Monroe,” she, Cleopatra, and Joan of Arc fail to compare to Pharrell’s desired partner; in “Lost Queen,” his love is placed as otherworldly as the only explanation for her perfection before evolving into hidden track “Freq,” in which Pharrell and JoJo praise uniqueness and self-love (and potentially provide a theme song to his collective side project, i am OTHER). Most importantly, Alicia Keys duet “Know Who You Are” champions feminism and self-esteem, as Keys even calls for a pledge to “do what I need ’til every woman on the Earth is free.”
While little seems to echo the hitmaking potential of “Happy,” the material stands well as its own body of work, and Pharrell’s accomplished name alone will likely elevate multiple singles to hit potential, especially as the weather begins to more closely reflect the upbeat melodies on the album. Nevertheless, G I R L displays Pharrell’s knack for catchy melodies and instrumental grooves while putting his own name at center billing, and it will likely continue to cement his place in the pop environment for a long time to come.
After his wife of over forty years, Corine, passed away in 2012, it took George Duke several months to regain musical inspiration. Following an evening spent enjoying the art of other musicians while vacationing on a cruise ship, he sat on his deck in wait of the sunrise when inspiration began to return. Much like this wave of ideas that flowed into Duke’s mind, DreamWeaver’s title track begins with a soft, synth-fueled wave from which second track “Stones of Orion” emerges, a light instrumental number that includes a four-piece horn section (including flute), Stanley Clarke on bass, and Duke twinkling on keys. Beyond, Duke fondly remembers his late wife on tracks like “Missing You” — whose lyrics were rewritten from a direct, autobiographical standpoint to a more general subject as vocalist Rachelle Ferrell took over vocal duties — and deluxe album closer “Happy Trails,” a cover of the 1950s theme song by Dale Evans and Roy Rogers. However, the album as a whole is more celebratory than grieving: despite Duke’s inevitable heartache, DreamWeaver includes several upbeat, funky instrumental sections and hopeful, forward-moving moments on “Change The World” and “Round The Way Girl,” in which Duke rekindles his romantic flame.
In addition to the remembrance of his wife, Duke reflects on his love and discovery of music. A mix of genres weave into the sound of the album: R&B, jazz, funk, adult contemporary soul, and spoken word are all represented, and Duke lays synthesizer lines over many of the tracks. With vocals harmonized on the octave and solos on muted trumpet and guitar, early standout “Trippin'” looks back at Duke’s childhood and the musical influence spread by his neighbor, a jazz aficionado. Further into the album, these genres are woven together between an introduction and two transitional interludes, and the threads that compose DreamWeaver are host to a vast number of collaborators, including vocalist Lalah Hathaway, bassist Christian McBride, and one of the final recordings from R&B icon Teena Marie. Along with the instrumental introduction, several of the album’s thirteen tracks offer moments for them and many other musicians to take the spotlight.
While DreamWeaver stretches to nearly all of the eighty-minute length of a physical CD, several moments could be benefited with less length. The fifteen-minute “Burnt Sausage Jam” slips fluidly through three movements of instrumental funk which, while engaging in the short term, often grow repetitive with minutes to spare. The same conclusion can be made for rock-leaning “Brown Sneakers,” whose six-minute length fails to hold interest with the same pace and energy that earlier, shorter standout “AshTray” achieves. This is not to take away from the musical finesse of Duke and his many well-known collaborators, all of whom perform and vibe together with evident skill, highlighted in moments like the guitar and trumpet trades of “Jazzmatazz” and the electric guitar solo on the first half of “Brown Speakers.”
These moments of repetition, however, do not keep DreamWeaver from being a celebratory, enjoyable body of work than spans multiple styles of music. George Duke’s final album is a formidable collection forged in fond remembrance of lengthy relationships with the wife and music that he loved.
As previously displayed on his first two GRAMMY-nominated albums, 2011 debut Water and its 2012 follow-up Be Good, Gregory Porter overflows with expression through deep, soulful baritone vocals. Whereas his previous works focused more heavily on political and historical matter, his Blue Note debut Liquid Spirit takes a more personal turn, telling stories of community, affirmation, and love. Porter’s love for the blues, gospel, and soul genres that influence the sounds of Liquid Spirit come from his musical upbringing, citing the renowned vocalist Nat King Cole as a lifelong inspiration alongside saxophonists John Coltrane and Lester Young. As such, the tonal image of the saxophone is evoked as Porter sings, addressing topics familial and romantic as well as historical. The relaxed tone of the Los Angeles native’s vocals deliver sweet, loving lines like those in “Hey Laura” and “Wolfcry,” while “Free” is punctuated with accents and percussion as Porter thanks his parents for their love and sacrifice. Even “Brown Grass,” the album’s emotional low point, shines deceptively with light piano chords that twinkle under Porter’s ever-warm, effortless melodies. Throughout the album, the experiential lyrics written are propelled by the genuine humility and friendliness of Porter’s personality, which is easily carried by the boom of the gentle giant’s thick baritone.
While Water and Be Good employed a larger amount of instrumental solos, Porter takes a more centered role on this third album. These solos are more abridged as well — only three of the album’s fourteen tracks stretch beyond five minutes in length — and whereas his earlier works contained more brass solos and a few scat choruses from Porter himself, Liquid Spirit is mainly populated with saxophone, bass, and piano. This allows Porter’s vocal to shine as the main act of each song, putting his lyrics and comfortable delivery at center stage.
Of Porter’s three albums, Liquid Spirit is the first not to close with an a cappella cover, the previous two showcasing his vocals over classics “Feeling Good” and “God Bless The Child.” Arguably, such a bare display of Porter’s vocals is unnecessary on this collection of songs: he displays emotion and warmth in spades throughout the album such that the reminder of his talent is unneeded, and the conviction of his vocal gives the instrumental underbelly opportunity to further cradle his melody without overpowering it. Porter’s Spirit flows as freely as water here, and as comfortably as he has shown in live performances in the past. Pairing with legendary jazz label Blue Note for the first time on this release, this may be the album that moves Porter closer toward legendary status as well.