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Toshi Reagon.



(Razor & Tie)

Be Your Water

(Self-released/available through Goldenrod Music)

Have You Heard

(Righteous Babe)

FOLK-ROCK VETERAN AND ACTIVIST Toshi Reagon has had a career that's spanned numerous labels and band formations since her debut on the venerable Flying Fish label in 1990. She's defined for most audiences by the experience of her super-intense live performances and dynamism as a bandleader, and one might think that her band BIGLovely would translate into a record as most bands do--good, but not the same as the in-person experience. Reagon's most recent studio sets rise above this expectation. Though sonically different, they work as an emotional triptych detailing a bouillabaisse of experiences from the past few years with Reagon's trademark, laser-focused mix of ferocity and tenderness.


TOSHI (released in 2002 by New York indie house Razor & Tie) was written and recorded after a spate of touring that ended shortly before Sept. 11. Reagon's deft songwriting touch expresses a complex mix of emotions that colored that period. Opening with the driving rocker "Little Light," the album has an intensity that doesn't let up even through the whispery ballads ("Slippin' Away"), country soul ditties ('I Hate/I Love"), entrancing spirituals (an almost ethereal cover of Sweet Honey in the Rock's classic "Ballad of the Broken Word"), and the closing of a slowed-down acoustic version of the Cars' 1978 hit "Just What I Needed."

The 2004 EP Be Your Water feels almost as if Reagon is having a cool-out jam session before the evening set at a club. Though extremely laid back in comparison to most of the previous set's material, it is no less compelling. The title cut (written by her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon and performed by BIGLovely during Sweet Honey's 30th Anniversary tour) and the plaintive "Love and Affection" are smoke to the coming fire of Have You Heard.

Reunited with TOSHI producer Craig Street (of Norah Jones, Charlie Sexton, and Meshell Ndegeocello), Reagon released the new album on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label. Have You Heard finds her and the band (celebrating their 10th year as a unit in 2006) in impossibly tight shape, blazing through the locomotive, churchy title track and seamlessly shifting gears to the steamy, organ-driven "22 Hours" and back to the urgent, sexy James Brown-flavored funk of "Didn't I Tell You." Vocalist Judith Casselberry (also known from the duo Casselberry-DuPree) and drummer Robert "Chicken" Burke complement each other and undergird Reagon's conversation with the listener to a degree that the softest moments contain the intensity of the most deliberate solos and breakdowns. The closing track (an almost whispered take on Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel") works, interestingly enough, as another beginning as opposed to a period on a story. Given Reagon's sparkling track record, it seems certain that it's just a bit of calm before the next storm.


Return to Cookie Mountain


Darlings of the independent music press for the past two years on the strength of their first full-length release, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go, 2004), TV On The Radio got a huge public co-sign by rock legend David Bowie and then experienced the typical indy-favorite-signs-with-major-label backlash following their switch to pop juggernaut Interscope Records. Many of their fans were afraid that their dense mix of crunchy guitar, distorted, dissonant samples and chugging blues rhythms would get lost in the shuffle of Interscope's current library of sure-fire top 40 cash cows. (Fourteen artists on the label sold in excess of four million copies between late 2003 and early 2006.)


Fortunately, Return picks up right where Desperate closed: screeching, pop-clicking, pulsing and snapping its way through thoughtful metaphorics on everything from the U.S. military quagmire in Iraq on "I Was a Lover" ("We're just busy tempting, like fate's on the nod/running on empty, bourbon and god it's been a while since we knew the way/and it's been even longer since our plastic priest class/had a goddamned thing to say") to the simple want-you-to-want-me's of "Wolf Like Me." Bowie successfully allays any fears about his engaging in any superstar scenery chewing, making an inspired cameo on the chorus of "Province." Guitarist Kyp Malone and producer/vocalist Tunde Adebimpe's respective falsetto and tenor are in even better form here, switching from smoothed-out soul harmonies to classic punk caterwauling, creating an odd tension and lending sweetness to even the most banal pop subject matter. Drummer Jaleel Bunton's thundering yet elastic drumlines play out and around Malone's delicately fuzzed guitar lines and producer/multi-instrumentalist David Sitek has a seemingly bottomless library of weird electronic bleeps, blips and sound fragments that lend emotional weight to the band's complex yet firmly tongue-in-cheek lyricism and set them apart from the self-involved shoe-gazing endemic to the current alt-rock scene.


Camphor and Copper

(Malleable Records)

Twenty-one-year-old Haitian-Canadian songwriter and guitarist Laveaux shows startlingly impressive musical range and depth on her debut recording. Painfully vulnerable in an industry that punishes such, Laveaux delivers a lyricism and playing that display a complexity belying her youth and an optimism in the face of despair and uncertainty that seems strictly the domain of the young.


From the initial strains of "Scissors," Camphor bares poet soul using hand percussion, bilingual lyricism, and a wide range of modern and traditional influences to open a window to struggle and the joy of simply being present. Her voice bending but refusing to break, Laveaux rasps and slurs alternating syllables at all the right moments. It's technically precise in a way that always seems intuitive. The double entendres of "My Boat" as a love song and indictment of colonialism ("My boat/sweet anger/sweet salvage/cast anchor upon my fingers ... We'll take it slow/or to the town/bother the shadows/pretend to be lost in the world of clef notes") illustrate the threads running through the album to the imploring "Ulysses." ("Would I give to be fought for/have you longed for more/where's my Trojan horse/I ain't got no Ulysses/I watch the seas/I suck the heat out of the breeze.") She reminds us that we are here because someone chose to keep going--and that we were their light at the end of a tunnel.

Juba Kalamka is a founding member of the queer hip-hop group Deep Dickollective and creator of the label Sugartruck Recordings.

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Author:Kalamka, Juba
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Article Type:Sound recording review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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