As usual, my playlist is a wildly eclectic mix of sounds. The new releases I'm listening to this week range from evocative '50s blues to ferocious post-grunge rock. In between, there's quirky urban pop and dense, progressive hip-hop.
Percy Mayfield, Specialty Profiles: Let's start with the oldie of the bunch by one of the most undervalued songsmiths in pop. Two years ago, the Concord Music Group acquired the catalog of Specialty, Art Rupe's legendary '50s label that released pioneering rock 'n' roll records by Little Richard and Lloyd Price and early gospel tracks by the Soul Stirrers featuring a young Sam Cooke. Last week, the Beverly Hills-based company began its Specialty Profiles series, a line of succinct best-of collections by the famed label's unsung legends.
Called the poet laureate of the blues, Mayfield is perhaps best known for "Please Send Me Someone to Love," an incisive, broken-hearted ballad that topped the R&B charts in 1950. Though over the years many artists, including Dinah Washington and Sade, have recorded the song, Mayfield's version is the definitive one. His thick, drawling baritone gives the rocks-in-my-heart sentiment of the lyrics a certain believability that no other rendition has captured.
The artist's life reflected the sadness of his work. Just as he was about to become a major star, Mayfield's refined good looks were ruined in a 1952 car crash that left his face disfigured. Soon afterward, he became an alcoholic and drifted into obscurity for nearly 30 years. In 1984, a day before his 64th birthday, the blues great suffered a heart attack and died. At the time, Mayfield was on the verge of a career resurgence. His Specialty Profiles edition is a great introduction to his best work of the 1950s.
The 14-track set opens with "Please Send Me Someone to Love" followed by other beautiful, downtrodden blues numbers such as "Prayin' For Your Return" and "Cry Baby." But Mayfield wasn't all tears. When he wanted to, he could swing ("Sugar Mama-Peachy Papa") and get nasty ("Loose Lips"). A slight Louisiana man with little formal education, he was an insightful (occasionally maudlin) lyricist whose work was greatly admired by his longtime friend, Ray Charles. The soul genius recorded several of the blues poet's songs, including "Hit the Road Jack." Mayfield's original bare-bones demo of that classic closes his edition of Specialty Profiles.
Kelis, Kelis Was Here: When Kelis first hit the scene in 1999, she rocked a rainbow freedom 'fro, which was emblematic of her musical approach. Wild and colorfully bright, Kaleidoscope, the Harlem native's Neptunes-produced debut, featured her breakout hit "Caught Out There." On it, Kelis famously screamed the chorus: "I hate you so much right now." Wanderland, her 2001 sophomore album, wasn't even released in the United States. But 2003's Tasty went gold, spurred by the insanely catchy No. 3 pop single, "Milkshake." Now, Mrs. Nasir Jones returns with her fourth and most inconsistent CD, Kelis Was Here. This time, she ditches the Neptunes in favor of a cast of hot urban-pop producers, including the ubiquitous will.i.am, Scott Storch and Shondrae.
The album opens with "Bossy," a moderate summer hit and one of the CD's weaker cuts. On "Till the Wheels Fall Off," the no-nonsense singer expertly delves into funk-rock as filtered through Prince circa 1987. The lively cut is one of the CD's standouts along with the whimsical "Circus" and the club burner "Blindfold Me." With 18 tracks the album is excessively long and padded but studded here and there with quirky, beat-driven cuts emboldened by Kelis' irresistible musical personality. You'd be better off cherry-picking songs for your iPod.
The Roots, The Game Theory: But this set, the Philly hip-hop band's seventh overall, is better experienced as a whole unit. Beware: It is a heavy album. And with the crude drawing of a hangman on the cover, what should one expect? Bumping with nervy beats, paranoid vocals and bitter, angst-laced rhymes by the Roots' mouthpiece, the ever-serious Black Thought, The Game Theory is much more focused than the band's last effort, 2004's halfhearted The Tipping Point. Musically, though, the album isn't as kaleidoscopic as previous releases. The sound is refreshingly streamlined as the spotlight centers on the rhymes. It's fitting that such a dark album closes with a eulogy. "Can't Stop," a reflective eight-minute suite produced by the recently departed J Dilla, opens and closes with heartfelt testimonials about one of the best beatmakers hip-hop has ever known.
Audioslave, Revelations: In a recent RollingStone.com interview, Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello described the post-grunge band's new album as "Led Zeppelin meets Earth, Wind & Fire. ... [It's] a big rock record with a funky bottom." He isn't too far off. The 12-track CD kicks off with the driving, pumped-up title track. And it's indicative of the arrangements on the rest of the album: choppy chords over simple, funk-derived beats. Some cuts are more memorable than others. "One in the Same," for instance, is an immediate stomper awash with wah-wah guitar that sounds closer to Funkadelic than E,W&F. "Original Fire," the album's first single, is a fine showcase for Chris Cornell's bristly, Bruce Springsteen-like vocals. Though the energy lags a bit during the second half of Revelations, the album solidly brings back to modern rock a strong sense of groove, something the genre has been missing lately.