Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here

5 out of 10: Lacking polish, lacking direction, yet still reasonable

Gil Scott-Heron is one of the progenitors of rap. In his heyday, he was an angry, lyrical artist who eloquently catalogued the travails of African-Americans over what were usually sparse rhythms, quietly funky, that evoked the wilds of his enslaved forebears’ home continent.

Scott-Heron’s last album, the solid Spirits, was released in 1994. The years between then and now have not been kind: he’s spent them in and out of jail on drug charges as if a character in one of the stories he used to relate in his much-heralded musical past. Nevertheless, the years between then and now have added to the croaky, baritone resonance of his voice which render his poetic pronouncements so believable, urgent and soulful.

I’m New Here is Scott-Heron emerging from a dark place to find himself immersed in an unfamiliar world. Gone is the sound of defiance that was a hallmark of his earlier work, the sound of resignation taking its place. Unfortunately, much of that sound is created via humdrum electronica of the kind that’s preprogrammed into the latest piece of gadgetry. His lyrical themes, of death, of lives wasted, of heartbreak, take on a tacky hue with such accompaniment, a maudlin evocation of downcast subject matter.

The departures from baleful electronica are highlights, however: I’ll Take Care of You is a stand out, stark and affecting; while the messy handclap loop and Scott-Heron’s ragged vocals on New York is Killing Me feels exactly like the confusion of a mind recoiling from too much big-city stimulus.

I’m New Here is more a passable return rather than a triumphant one: it’s too short, it feels hastily put together and it lacks polish. Sixty-one years of age and now out of jail, one hopes Scott-Heron remains that way, at least so his next album can be the triumph that we know he’s capable of producing.

The King Khan and BBQ Show’s Invisible Girl

2 out of 10: Garage rock that should have remained in the garage

Like a Hindu deity’s avatar, Indo-Canadian King Khan pops up most everywhere. On this occasion, he’s teamed up with Mark Sultan, aka BBQ, and mixed in doo wop with the revivalist garage rock that has become synonymous with his name.

Revivalist, too, is perhaps the best description of King Khan’s vocals: he’s manic, hypnotic, out of tune and most likely inspired by something greater than himself when he gets on the mic, issuing forth filthy smut to raise his congregation up to a higher plane where the good-time splendour of his dirty rock can be best experienced.

In the best of Khan’s previous incarnations, collected together on the fine The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines, this good-time rock and roll is loud, punchy and fun. On Invisible Girl, though, there’s no volume or raucousness to hide the lack of musicianship. All that’s left is bad jokes and cheesy stories of boy meets girl that are as cheap as the staid garage-rock chords that they’re sung over. Sure, Tastebuds is a funny bad joke – it’s about tastebuds on parts of body that aren’t the tongue – but all Invisible Girl amounts to is trashy lyrics and trashy music that might be described as refreshing or edgy by Triple R listeners who equate roughy and ready with cutting edge.

The King Khan and BBQ Show is a poor man’s Ween. Don’t be that poor man – go get yourself Chocolate and Cheese, The Mollusk or La Cucaracha rather than this amateurish excuse for musical ribaldry.

Medeski, Martin and Wood @ the HiFi Bar, 29th Jan, 2010

7 out of 10: As is to be expected from a highly improvisational jazz band, highs, lows and everything in between

Jazz fusion is a dirty word for good reason: the genre abounds in meandering, soulless “songs” that are better off described as excursions into the wilds of boredom. Once upon a time, though, fusion was exciting: Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew is fantastic, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters a revelation. Happily, Medeski, Martin and Wood (MMW) are steeped in the still-hallowed sounds of fusion’s halcyon days and are fittingly one of the few contemporary jazz trios around who are able to draw a crowd anywhere in the world. Tonight they’re at the HiFi, and tonight they manage to three-quarters fill its sizeable surrounds.

MMW tours as part of the jam-band circuit that The Grateful Dead established and which remains a phenomenon confined to the USA. They have material spread over eight albums to choose from, but live, as all jam bands are wont to do, the songs take on a (long) life of their own.

And live, they push their material into a more avant-garde direction. On Lifeblood, for instance, the first song they play, the delicious groove breaks out into an interlude that sounds like the spinning of an inventive madman’s mind. Billy Martin, MMW’s crack drummer, is particularly creative, even sprinkling a passage reminiscent of gamelan into the section.

The night, though, belongs to John Medeski, the band’s supremely talented pianist. Medeski drives the group, switching effortlessly between organ, keyboard and grand piano while evoking the likes of Gil Evans, Bernie Worrell, Ray Charles and Chucho Valdés. The crescendos the band manages to build on the back of the inspired keys are a delight, especially when they lock into the hardest of grooves. Not only does he have the necessary touch of a jazzman, he also manages to turn his keys into an aggressive, howling beast that would not be misplaced on stage with Rage Against The Machine.

If there is criticism to be made, though, it’s the standard one made of improvisational bands: a lack of cohesion. The abrupt jumps from one style to another often sounds as unnatural as switching between radio stations, not to mention the free jazz sections that are at times as difficult to penetrate as they are inventive.

Nonetheless, MMW are a honed live band. Their many years playing together means musical ideas are constantly bounced between each band member with ease. While this improvisatory skill can sometimes be overplayed, the band is always interesting, daring and a welcome deviation from the norm.