Motivating Factors 

A look at four genuinely inspired albums—and one could’ve-been

A look at four genuinely inspired albums—and one could’ve-been

CeCe Winans, CeCe Winans (Sparrow) Think prayer is just quiet contemplation, nothing but waiting in silence for a word from on high? Yeah, well, a good two-thirds of this groove-rich supplication session will disabuse you of that notion in a hurry. Hell, uncut funk like “Anybody Wanna Pray?” should be enough to have a whole church full of doubters jacking their bodies in the aisles (and deacons beseeching the Almighty that the pews stay bolted down). “Say a Prayer” and “More Than Just a Friend” are ripe for the dance floor as well, while the brittle techno of “Out My House” would have sounded right at home on Madonna’s or Janet’s latest. Of course, CeCe’s message is different than that of her worldly sisters—always has been. But apart from a couple-three shout-outs to the Holy Spirit and her “Heavenly Father,” it’s only implicitly Christian here, and I say “Amen.” Most of the time, when Winans lifts that full-bodied voice of hers, she wants to take the entire human community—not just the faithful—higher. If it weren’t for those Disney-fied ballads, I swear she could make a believer out of anyone.

Michael Franti and Spearhead, Stay Human (Six Degrees) And speaking of believers. A cultural and political radical since his days with Bay Area agitprop outfits like The Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Spearhead frontman Michael Franti wields beats and rhymes to decry anything that breeds injustice and keeps people down. With this fictitious radio broadcast he takes on the death penalty, interspersing “on air” snippets about the execution of a political prisoner, a wrongly-accused ganja activist, with Gil Scott-Heron-inspired jeremiads and calls-to-arms. Tart tropes like “They make me wanna go Sprewell / Every time I see my family in jail” hook the former; more predictable inducements to “Take over television and radio station / Give the corporation some complication” are typical of the latter. And the music, which employs synths, horns, strings, loops, guitars, and such—and spans jazz, funk, rock, hip-hop, reggae, and soul—is even tougher than on previous Spearhead albums. Tough enough, in fact, to back Franti’s rap about love being what sets us free—love being more than a feeling, but an ontological force, the only foundation, or hope, any of us have for a just society. Indeed, for staying human.

The Webb Brothers, Maroon (Atlantic) It’s tempting to chalk up the divergent sensibilities of master tunesmith Jimmy Webb (ultra-romantic) and his sons Christiaan and Justin (utterly disaffected) to the different eras in which they came of age: dad in the Aquarian ’60s, his kids in the Gen-whatever ’90s. To do so, though, would gloss over the sinister streak that runs through pop’s music. (Why, after all, if the Wichita lineman is so in love, can’t or won’t he come down off that pole?) It would also ignore the fact that the underbelly of the Sunset Strip where dad made his mark was as seedy as the demimonde on which his boys shine their cruel light. That shadow-world is the post-grunge, Chicago alt-rock scene of Liz Phair’s Guyville. Yet where Phair responded to that decadent, self-absorbed scene by getting pissed off (“I’ll fuck you...”) and taking names (“...and your minions too”), the Webbs are merely jaded (“All the cocaine in the world / Can’t bring back the girl”) and aloof (“I loved you in a fashion”). Maroon might even have sunk beneath the weight of such pretensions had the Webbs, in voices as sullen as vintage Elvis Costello, not numbered themselves among the creeps and casualties. Most salutary, however, are the sonics—sweeping orchestration, surging guitars, random-noise bursts, and glorious Brill Building hooks testifying to the humanity at the heart of all this useless beauty.

Res, How I Do (MCA) This sister from the City of Brotherly Love is young, gifted, and black, so she must be a neo-soul diva à la Angie, Jill, and Pru, right? Not by half—not that there’d be anything wrong with that, mind you. But judging by this protean, hard-to-peg debut, Res (pronounced “Reese”) has a groove all her own. Several of ’em in fact. The album’s first single, “Ice King,” percolates like dance hall mutating into drum ’n’ bass. “700 Mile Situation” is spaced-out dub spattered with interpolations of “And I Love Her” and Clintonian come-ons (George or Bill) like “What’s your soul taste like baby?” “If There Ain’t Nothing” snatches back the spine-buckling bass line from the Stones’ “Miss You,” while the noisy hidden track is straight outta Seattle (or at least Olympia). With Res’ cool rasp splitting the difference between that of Kim Deal and Lauryn Hill—and her lyrics nearly as conscious as Hill’s—how she do comes off as equal parts college- and body-rock. In short, very alt.

The Word, The Word (ropeadope) Fat Possum acolytes are gonna mess themselves over this one, and it sure looks good on paper: vamping keys compliments of John Medeski, grooves courtesy of the North Mississippi Allstars, pyrotechnics provided by steel-guitar wunderkind Robert Randolph. But unlike the by turns incendiary and sublime sacred steel music (Randolph’s métier) that has recently come out on Arhoolie, this smacks of jam-band noodle-roni, and I blame the rhythm section. Too much of the time the not-so-shining Stars can’t get or keep it up long enough for Randolph or slide guitarist Luther Dickinson to get their rocks off. Sure, the Hendrix-meets-Sharrock skronk of “Waiting on My Wings” soars, especially with Randolph scratching out melismatic cries that conjure the glossolalia of Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost. And the quintet’s smoldering take of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” lights a quiet fire, but too often they just don’t generate the heat needed to boil water for the aforementioned pasta medley. The tour that’s in the works may prove otherwise, but for now, the House of God, and not this putative supersession, is where the Spirit’s at.


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