Pieces of a Man: On the run with Gil Scott-Heron and Makaya McCraven

we're new again review

Was there ever really a home for Gil Scott-Heron? Throughout his abbreviated life he seemed to pine for one, even as he harborded disbelief that such a place could ever exist. In his seminal albums from the 1970s— outpourings of conscience and lament— the poet-singer bore witness against racial and economic injustice like a wild voice in the wilderness; a citizen of the promised land who knew he’d be forever estranged from its abundance. He was alienated not just from his country, but from himself. One famous song posited that “Home is Where the Hatred Is,” an admission that for a lifelong addict there’s no haven to be found; no shelter from the treacheries of the flesh. Home sounded equally unattainable some 40 years later, when an album called I’m New Here reflected on a life spent on the run. (“Not running for cover/ because if I knew where cover was/ I would stay there and never have to run for it,” he reasoned.) Much of that album was devoted to the strong women who raised him, gave him peace and shelter, provided him with light unto his path and a foundation of love and support. But still he ran. A year later, he was dead from the complications of HIV and years of substance abuse. A perpetual prodigal, a lifelong exilee. Did he ever find cover? Did he ever find home?

The sense of displacement Scott-Heron embodied in life— and the unsettledness he conjured in his music— makes him a strangely perfect candidate for a project like We’re New Again, which marks the third distinct presentation of his I’m New Here material. The original album was made in tandem with producer Richard Russell, who adorned Scott-Heron’s creaky intonations in spectral electronics. We’re New Here, an album-length remix from Jamie xx, was released just a year later. We’re New Again is the latest tribute to Scott-Heron as a man fraying at the edges; a scruffy character whose life and work were proudly unvarnished and unfinished, and whose legacy exists not as settled business but as a set of open questions ripe for relitigation. At the helm this time is drummer/composer Makaya McCraven, one of our great jazz visionaries. It’s not quite right to call McCraven’s album a remix. It’s a full reimagining, using the late poet’s final recorded words as building blocks but stacking them against a rich backdrop of live performance and convincing post-production effects. One of the most famous Gil Scott-Heron records is called Pieces of a Man, and that’s still what’s on offer today: Shards of a beautiful man and a broken life, submitted to us as runes to be reassessed and reassembled. 

As Mark Richardson notes, “McCraven brings Scott-Heron’s work down to earth and situates it in a milieu the elder artist would have recognized,” running the gamut from spirited soul-jazz to lived-in blues. It feels more in-tune with Scott-Heron’s black music affinities than either of the albums that preceded it. And yet, in McCraven’s splicing, dicing, sampling, and imaginative recontextualizations, it also bears witness to Scott-Heron as a forward thinker and hip-hop originator. It’s a smart positioning for Scott-Heron’s legacy, and it’s an advantageous setting for McCraven. He’s all but unmatched at weaving together grooves and textures and micro-moments into immersive suites of sound, an approach he blew up to epic lengths on Universal Beings. We’re New Again allows him to make similarly evocative music, but with Scott-Heron’s words as a focal point. McCraven and his collaborators (including Jeff Parker) rise to the occasion with both narrative clarity and disorientation: “Where Did the Night Go” is a trippy nightmare of trilling flutes and drum kit bluster, as gently unmooring as the Heffalumps and Woozles dream sequence from Winnie the Pooh. “Running” is set to an insistent hip-hop beat, McCraven’s timekeeping cruel and unrelenting. “I’ll Take Care of You,” Scott-Heron’s turn as a piano crooner, is presented in all its parched vulnerability; a declaration of fidelity that’s really an admission of raw need.

McCraven gives us stirring music and high drama, alternating between fleshed-out songs and fragmented soliloquies. But there is a real sense of thematic development here, empathy for Scott-Heron’s life spent on the lam. “Running” still feels like a thesis statement (“because the thing I fear cannot be escaped”). There’s also “The Crutch,” presented here as a distorted electric blues, a song for men who carefully evade the kindness of God or the universe (“when the world reached out, they chose to flee”). On I’m New Here, Scott-Heron gave us a tender reflection on the grandmother who raised him (“absolutely not your mail order, room service, typecast black grandmother”). McCraven divides it into four separate tracks, left scattered throughout the album like breadcrumbs. There’s also the “I’m New Here” theme, recurring on multiple songs as a reminder that there’s never any wanderer who’s strayed too far (“no matter how far wrong you’ve gone/ you can always turn around”). But McCraven gives the last word to “Me and the Devil,” Scott-Heron’s take on Robert Johnson. Amidst gnarled guitars and swaggering brass, Scott-Heron warns against the Evil One. There is always something to run from.

Mama Gotta Hustle: Tami Neilson redefines retro

tami neilson chickaboom

Everything about Tami Neilson is a throwback— from her beehive hairdo to the faded glam-shot artwork of her new album, CHICKABOOM! Even the ad copy that appears under the album title, anointing her “The Hot Rockin’ Lady of Country, Rockabilly & Soul,” seems to promise something like an old-timey magic trick; a costumed conjuring of something you’d typically only see at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But anyone expecting museum memorabilia or nostalgic wish fulfillment has never heard the hot rockin’ lady sing. While it’s true that CHICKABOOM! dazzles in its retro chic, at times suggesting a stylish soundtrack to an imagined Quentin Tarantino film, the music is just too loud, too raucous, too electric to ever sound like a relic. Wherever Neilson does her thing, no dust can settle, no cobwebs can form.

CHICKABOOM! isn’t a nostalgia play so much as a reinvigoration of classic tropes— a combustible cross-pollination of Wanda Jackson riffs, Patsy Cline waterworks, Bo Diddley thunder, and, on “Any Fool with a Heart,” soft-touch uptown pop. All of it’s presented not with an archivist’s academic caution, but with a stage actress’ dramatic flair and a garage band’s appetite for destruction. It feels very much like the right kind of album for Neilson to make following 2018’s superb SASSAFRASS!, which went deep and wide and showed the full range of what she’s capable of. Her virtuosity indisputable, Neilson can now turn her attention to just blowing shit up, which is kinda what CHICKABOOM! feels like: A box of fireworks, where the singer lights one short fuse after another and lets these songs burn fast and bright in a blaze of snarling guitars and crackling drums. It’s almost like a jukebox singles record, where there’s never a dull moment and only a couple of songs that push past three minutes; in the longest, “When You Were Mine,” Neilson uses the full three-and-a-half minute runway to mine maximum existential anguish from her Muscle Shoals hotbox. More representative of the album’s spring-loaded mayhem is “Hey Bus Driver!,” a concentrated dose of thumping toms, barbed-wire guitar riffs, and punchy Sun Records primitivism. 

Neilson grew up touring and singing in a family band, showbiz experience that’s always been her secret weapon: She’s got obvious natural talent but also knows how to sing with clarity and precision, how to hit her marks, how to work a crowd. “When You Were Mine” is the showstopper, the one where Neilson starts in the low embers of the blues and builds to in-the-red catharsis, putting her vocal cords straight through the shredder as she howls in anguish. It’s a controlled eruption, and a stark contrast to the nonchalant opener “Call Your Mama,” where Neilson sends an unworthy dude packing, brandishing sneers and snarls like a showboating gunslinger. She’s also unafraid to ham it up sometimes, cackling her way through “Ten Tonne Truck,” about a successful woman laughing all the way to the bank. (“HA HA HA!”)

The album’s 10 little bottle rockets— originals, once again written with brother Jay, who also sings and plays on the album— address concerns that never go out of style: Love, heartbreak, hard work, the open road, money and its absence. The heartbreak songs are imaginative: “16 Miles of Chain” is a hardscrabble drama where love is literal imprisonment, while “You Were Mine” looks to a formative loss as an event that cleaved time in two. But Neilson is at her best, her toughest, her prickliest when she’s singing about her hustle, as she does in “Ten Tonne Truck,” about the alchemic formula of luck and grit required to make big bucks in Nashville. Speaking of which, it wouldn’t be a Tami Neilson album without a few choice words about the absence of women on today’s country charts, something she takes care of with mirthless one-liners in “Queenie, Queenie.” The same song gets to another of her core strengths, which is embodying a feminism that ennobles domesticity and leaves plenty of room for working mothers. “What’s a stay-at-home mom do with all that time?” she deadpans as the bills and dirty dishes pile up, drums clattering like a ticking timebomb or a Jeopardy! buzzer. That song is a pressure cooker, but there’s release in “Sister Mavis,” a pentecostal rave-up where Neilson rides high atop handclaps and jangling tambourines, espousing a holy canon where synoptic gospels share space with Mavis Staples, Sister Rosetta, and Mahila Jackson. There’s nothing stuffy or forced about its hero worship: Like the rest of CHICKABOOM!, it uses the past as a powder keg; the first spark of a righteous ruckus. 

Objects of Affection: Jeff Parker’s sweet specificity

suite for max brown

Jazz guitarist Jeff Parker wrote and recorded Suite for Max Brown in dedication to his mother, whose image graces the album’s cover. You don’t actually have to know that in order to enjoy the largely instrumental album, which offers much to savor with or without the backstory. But when you do know it, it brings this curious piece of music into clearer view. Parker’s intentions explain why the music sounds so lovingly detailed without sounding fussy or overworked; how Suite for Max Brown is such a delicate and particular object of affection, like a Mother’s Day card made with macaroni and glue. 

Maybe that description makes the album sound small, which it is. While some records impress with their scope and their sprawl, Suite for Max Brown is an intimate collection of humble pleasures, derived from laid-back jazz, electronic beat-making, and ambient tranquility; it’s a mosaic of textures, colors, and grooves that extol specificity and warrant close attention. (The album’s modesty makes it a surprising but not unworthy choice for Pitchfork’s first “Best New Music” designation of the decade.) It’s no accident that the album’s lone vocal number, “Build a Nest,” finds Parker’s daughter Ruby espousing the virtues of slowing down, eschewing hustle and bustle, and assiduously constructing something that’s made to last. While Suite for Max Brown flits from one micro-moment to the next, each of those moments feels like it’s been placed with care, imbued with affection, and offered as a focal point for obsession; the music covers a lot of ground but somehow feels unhurried. Its grace is most evident in a glowing rendition of John Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” a moment of zen that revels in mind-clearing languor and pace-setting deliberation. 

So while Parker’s songs are generous with memorable melodies and robust performances, you’re just as likely to latch onto the droning keyboard tone that sounds through “Fusion Swirl,” as if it’s suspended in zero gravity; the loose rattle of Jay Bellerose’s tambourine on “3 for L”; the bright chimes and ringing bells of “Metamorphoses.” Parker curates these micro-moments for their sensual pleasures, their tactility, their instant earworm-ability. That doesn’t leave a ton of space for him to shred— if it’s guitar heroics you’re after, try Julian Lage or The Messthetics— but he does dole out clear, supple licks on the strolling “3 for L,” and on “Go Away,” a full studio band works up a full head of steam, locking into a roiling Afrobeat groove.

One of the album’s most precious curios is “C’mon Now,” a 20-second loop of Otis Redding’s vocal exhortations. It functions as an interlude, yet feels like so much more. It positions Parker’s music on the same continuum with Makaya McCraven, Flying Lotus, and the late J Dilla, auteurs whose work bridges the divide between jazz improvisation and hip-hop splicing-and-dicing. (McCraven also plays on a few of these songs.) In other words, it’s a small gesture toward the big picture. But there are other ways to receive these Otis grunts and incantations: Perhaps they are here to remind us that every moment, every syllable is an opportunity for close attention; or perhaps simply because Jeff Parker knows somebody who loves hearing Otis Redding sing.