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March Roundup: J Dilla, Philip Cohran, Silmaril and Twinight

The Stop Smiling Tuesday Reviews

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reviewed by Sam Sweet

Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble: The Malcolm X Memorial (A Tribute In Music)
(Katalyst)

The concept of this 1968 album is stated with eloquence on the back cover: ?This tribute is based on Malcolm?s life subdivided into four distinct parts and these four parts are a model of the four stages of the American Blacks elevation to a higher life.? These kind of symbolic concept albums are not uncommon in jazz, but The Malcolm X Memorial is significant because of the locality and generosity of its leader. Philip Cohran played cornet on some of Sun Ra?s greatest Sixties recordings, and he remained a fixture on the Chicago scene throughout the decade. This album is a recording of a live performance at the Affro-Arts Theater on February 25th, 1968. The four sections of this performance encompass blues, R&B, soul, funk and Egyptian music, thereby drawing an evolution of black music in America to parallel Malcolm?s personal evolution. These concepts are often used to validate the worth of a recording ? in this case, it?s the personnel that validate the concept. Rather than attempt to translate Malcolm?s life with a host of major label stars, Cohran assembled a group of local Chicagoans. The power of The Malcolm X Memorial comes from the fact that its players were part of Malcolm?s target audience. It took real people, not stars, to provide the energy and imagination necessary to animate Malcolm?s message.

Silmaril: Voyage of Icarus
(Locust)

Few groups can boast the contradictions of Silmaril. The band was obsessed with the mystical England of Tolkien and Fairport Convention, but they came from Milwaukee. They emerged from the hippie movement, yet were defined by their Catholic devotion. Their charismatic leader, Matthew Peregrine, embodied artistic expression, yet adapted his lifestyle to the codes of the Church. Silmaril doesn?t represent an identity crisis as much as pure alienation. The band?s devout Christianity separated them from the counterculture scene, and their leader?s quest for personal freedom and religious redemption left them at odds with the Church itself. Silmaril were outsiders in every sense. Peregrine spent a lifetime reconciling his artistic and sexual identity with the Church?s values, and though the songs on their lone LP, Given Time?Or the Several Roads, suggest a skeletal Pentangle, no amount of Renaissance folk decoration can disguise the undercurrent of torment. Voyage of Icarus introduces tracks from the group?s previously unreleased second album, No Mirrored Temple. Less the work of a band, and more a channel through which Peregrine could exorcise his demons, the album proved to be the group?s last. Works like ?Not Enough? are confessions more than songs: with hushed guitar accompaniment, Peregrine lays bare his religious anguish. ?Not Enough? might be too much for a secularist to take seriously, were it not delivered with such terrifying, trembling intimacy.

V/A: Eccentric Soul: Twinight?s Lunar Rotation
(Numero)

The majority of these songs start the same way: with the crack of a drum and a burst of fanfare, like opening the blinds on a Saturday morning. Ironically, few of these sunny soul productions saw play during daytime hours ? Lunar Rotation is radio slang for the late-night shift, the only opportunity many of these acts had to break their songs to the airwaves. Syl Johnson was the star of Chicago?s Twinight label, but this collection focuses on the forgotten artists Johnson?s hits helped bankroll. Perfect-weather soul was Twinight?s specialty, but the best songs on Lunar Rotation are the ones that forgo a horn blast beginning for something more unexpected. The wiry, convulsive guitar that introduces ?Temptation Is Hard To Fight,? by George McGregor & the Bronzettes, is some of the most wrenching sobbing ever committed to record. Though extroverted, optimistic anthems like the Notations? ?A New Day? defined Twinight in its time, Velma Perkins? hushed, heartfelt ?I?ll Always Love You? ? a song that was thought lost prior to the release of this collection ? is the unforgettable centerpiece of Lunar Rotation.

J Dilla: Ruff Draft
(Stones Throw)

Long before his untimely death pushed his legacy into a haze of post-partum hero worship, J Dilla was not short of critics, many of whom branded his style of blunted Detroit hip-hop redundant, simplistic and boring. It?s hard not to read the atypical, relentlessly unpredictable 2003 album Ruff Draft as Dilla?s ?Fuck You? to his detractors. Recorded in less than a week, Ruff Draft is a restless, wild expansion of Dilla?s trademark hypnotic style, and bears no resemblance to the brand of bouncy, sample-based hip-hop Kanye West was ushering into national consciousness in 2003. Drenched in sleazy synths and lurching forward on piston-like drums, Ruff Draft disregards the sped-up, smooth soul samples that were beginning to dominate rap at the time. Instead he attempted a hip-hop translation of Gary Numan & Tubeway Army. Even when Dilla attempted a straight G-funk cruising song, it came out as the stunted ?Crushin? (Yeeeeaah!).? Though everything Dilla touched is infused with the feel of hip-hop, much of Ruff Draft defies categorization. How to describe a piece as discordant as ?Nothing Like This?? Embracing the white noise of Jesus & Mary Chain as much as Bambaataa?s electro, the songs lurches forward on aberrant, ugly drums, as Dilla?s distorted voice stutters the refrain ? ?All I need in my life is / There is nothing like this.? Furious under its icy sheen, the song radiates Dilla?s unwillingness to let his critics delineate his art.


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