Reviews

The Jen Chapin Trio Live at the Bohemian Caverns

The wonderful folk-soul-jazz singer plays a classic jazz club at the start of her tour. If only more people were hearing this music!


Jen Chapin

Reckoning

Label: Purple Chair
US Release Date: 2013-05-28
UK Release Date: 2013-05-28
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Photo: Merri Cyr

The Bohemian Caverns, at 11th and U Streets in Northwest Washington, DC, is the new incarnation of the classic underground jazz club where that famous Ramsey Lewis Trio album was recorded. It's the very same place today, under new management and part of the thriving U Street corridor that has been reawakened in the last 15 years.

You head downstairs into a vintage jazz club -- but with a cavern theme, fiberglass formed into cave walls that frame up a small stage. The club is about half full -- not bad for a Sunday show. The trio tonight is not quite a jazz group, as the leader will soon joke, even though the bass player is a premiere jazz player on this instrument. But he's also the musical (and married) partner to this great singer, Jen Chapin, daughter of the famous Harry Chapin, though Jen is far from a folk artist. Rather, she occupies a territory that's closer to soul and jazz, except that her songs have a firm rooting in both the stories and the social causes (and social observations) that make folk music important.

After playing the opening tune from her latest album, Reckoning, Jen says, "We're too folk for jazz and too jazz for folk". But when you actually hear the group play, hear Jen sing, bending her notes, dig the airy and impressionistic and mysterious chords that underlie the verse to the next tune, "Insatiable", you realize that this is just jazz that tells stories in more direct words. The simplicity, perhaps, doesn't seem very "jazz" to jazz people. But they're wrong.

The next tune, "Let It Show", does start like a folk song. It is a simple strum but with a gorgeous harmonic shift on the chorus. Jamie Fox, who plays electric guitar in contrast to Jen's acoustic, brings in a Bill Frisell-type harmonic sophistication that makes this tune into something more layered and interesting. The lyrics are about how to find a way to tell your kid that the world is better than it seems if you just let it be. And the song plays that out musically: simple but beautiful.

"Don't Talk" is yet another song from Reckoning, and another that is about marriage. After the lyric "We won't talk any more", there's a quick and earthy bass solo by Chapin's husband, the astonishing Stephan Crump. Hilarious in its own way. It's also notable here that the trio is recreating the arrangements from a record that was amply produced, which requires them to add some more texture with background vocals. Crump and Fox are up to the job. On the next song, "Feed Your Baby", Crump handles a low harmony (of course - he's a bass player) that really fills things out.

The band closes the first set and opens the second with some very hot songs. On "Let Me Just Be" Jen's voice cracks and frays in a sexy way. Some people find her voice cutesy: rounded but young, little girl-ish. But it's hardly that here. It's a little nasty. As is Fox's guitar solo, which uses just enough distortion and combines dirty chording with some crying high notes. "NYC" is a very funky tune that Chapin wrote in music school at Berkelee, pining for a "real city" like New York. It's all Crump, man, laying down a killer funk bass line that isn't simple at all but is, in fact, that perfect combination of syncopation and blues roots, surprises and a killer adherence to the joys of "the one".

Rhythmically, this trio is also much different from any folk band you've ever heard. "Little Hours" (from her first recording that really got attention) lets the band push and pull each other in a cool way. If you want to know how this music is not just "pop", not just a verse and chorus that could have been on the radio, here it is. The bass goes arco on the verse and the thing is just that much better. Similarly, "Passive People" is a rumba that hides its real agenda: to note that we put up with way too much just to stay comfortable. But, boy, it's easy to miss the point if you just hear how fun and seductive this groove it.

By the end of the night, the Caverns are pretty empty, but it's Sunday, to be fair, the very first night of a relatively long tour for this band. The songs from Reckoning sound astonishing -- the record really was one of the best adult pop records of 2013 -- and don't suffer from the lack of a more elaborate band because Fox and Crump are just that good. (Fox is worth a special note: the professor of the band with his Atticus Finch glasses and his easy-fitting jeans and his hollow-body Gibson never too loud for the small room.)

Toward the very end of the night, they call "Sail Into the Mystic", the great Van Morrison song. Fox and Crump give it a little skip-hop feeling, but what it's really about is when Jen sings "I want to rock your gypsy soul / Just like in the days of old" and give us that little voice crack that is her secret weapon, the little hole through which we see her vulnerability and fears. On the brink she's strong again, just like the soul singer that, I suppose, she really is. Strong but telling you that she's not strong, or -- more often -- telling you how strong she is even as she reveals the weaknesses we all see in ourselves.

It was an incredible night of music. The small band, the small club: a perfect fit. But this music deserves to be heard by so many other people. You can't help wondering how great it would sound with, say, a seven-piece band at Wolf Trap or the 9:30 Club. But you walk up the stairs from the Bohemian Caverns satisfied that you heard every note deep inside.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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