Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Obscure musicians I'm currently diggin'

I wish I could of a clever pun for the title of this post, but ah well. Here's a few artists I've discovered over the last year. They aren't that famous and they could not be considered 'in' with current musical tastes but that's what makes them interesting to my eardrums after a decade of repetitive dance beats and Auto-tune extravaganzas.

KEITH WASHINGTON

This guy's music was close to being my soundtrack to last summer, which is somewhat ironic since Washington hasn't had an album out since '98.

An odd beast in the climate of the early 90s, and even more so now, Washington is more of an old-school balladeer. In the age of hip hop and new jack, his first two albums sound both out-of-date and timeless in their use of lush orchestral arrangements and restrained use of synthesizers.

Benefiting from the lush production of Qwest Records (Quincy Jones' old outfit), Washington's first two albums are a sign of the path RnB did not take, standing out as a modern extension of the ballads Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson and Alexander O'Neal produced in the Eighties. A worthy compliment to the influence of new jack swing and gangster rap that rose to popularity in the early 90s, Washington was unable to maintain a consistent output and his last LP, despite a strong neo-soul pedigree failed to keep his star on the rise.

Talk of a new LP has been floating around for the last few years, but for now Washington remains a worthy yet under-utilized talent.

Key tracks: While his first album is filled with strong tracks, 'Kissing You' was the big hit, and for good reason.

CLEAR LIGHT

A one album wonder, but one that boasts eclecticism and bat shit insanity in abundance. Seen as a possible follow-up to Elektra's heavy hitters, The Doors (their titular album was produced by Doors producer Paul Rothchild), the band collapsed shortly after its release due to a combination of its poor chart performance and corporate pressure to become more commercial. The punchline to their sorry story is that half the band ended up enlisted as session players to beef up the Doors' sound in the studio.

Key tracks: 'Sand' is fun, crazy and vaguely annoying all at the same time. 'Mr Blue' is a remake of a folk song by Tom Paxton that turns the jokey irony of the original into a dark phantasmagoria of encroaching paranoia. Bizarre yet inspired.

WILL DOWNING

Boasting a silky, full-blooded baritone, Downing is something of a dinosaur in today's musical landscape. Originally marketed as a flat-out RnB singer in the style of Luther Vandross, it took a while for Downing to define himself. He had a few minor dance hits in the late Eighties and gained a strong following in the UK and Europe, but artistic satisfaction and stateside success eluded him.

Facing pressure from the money men to go in a more commercial direction following the middling returns of his second LP, Downing chose to focus on a project which foregrounded his love of old school soul and jazz standards. The result, A Dream Fulfilled (1991), overcame his label's dour predictions to become his most popular release. It also laid down the blueprint for the rest of his career.

Managing the trick of never being fashionable or predictable, he has overcame changing labels and personal illness to produce a run of strong albums that manage to run the line between vintage and contemporary sounds.  Now an independent, the 'Prince of Sophisticated Soul' has taken the radical approach of meeting the short attention span of the iTunes generation by issuing EPs of 3-4 tracks, with little reduction in quality.

Key albums: Downing is the most consistent performer of the bunch, having produced albums at the rate of every 1-2 years. The early albums are fun, but the most dated of his work, with early tracks like 'Free' and a memorable adaption of Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' pointing toward future ventures. I haven't listened to all of the albums from Dream Fulfilled on, but from the ones I have heard, 1995's Moods, 1998's overtly jazzy Pleasures of the Night, 2002's Sensual Journey and 2007's After Tonight provide an excellent spectrum for showcasing Downing's timeless, unpretentious approach to his brand of jazz-inflected RnB.

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