There will soon be real soul music coming to Montreal. While many bands these days strive to emulate the raw, funky sounds of the 1960s from record labels like Stax, Lee Fields doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. He was around when soul music was being forged and he has been at it ever since. The raspy but passionate singer’s career has spanned 45 years and has allowed him to tour the world with groups like Kool and the Gang and O.V. Wright, among others. Fields has again risen to prominence with his current group the Expressions. They will be playing at Cabaret du Mile End on September 10, supporting their recent album Emma Jean, released earlier this year on Truth & Soul Records.

It is easy to tell that Lee Fields and the Expressions is not just a gimmick band that achieves a retro sound without much substance. These musicians play with heart, authenticity, and with an ostensible urge to push the music forward. They certainly do not sound like a band that is content sitting on its laurels, rehashing old standards. Their sound pays homage to the lineage of soul music while contributing new elements to the genre’s canon.

Emma Jean is a reflection of Fields and the Expressions’ evolution as a group and their expansion of musical ideas. The songwriting on the album is not formulaic, which is a trap that entices many soul acts. The arrangements are creative and effective, challenging but accessible. The band employs tight grooves, tasteful horns, and as always, Fields’ honest, tender vocals. In line with the soul tradition, Fields’ lyrics focus primarily on love and loss. Even though these themes are not entirely original, Fields’ delivery is like no other.

It is not often that a group with such a strong soul pedigree (and lived experience) comes through Montreal. Lee Fields and the Expressions is a rare breed of band that has the combination of undeniably supreme musicianship and unbridled depth of emotion and funk.

Lee Fields and the Expressions will be playing at Cabaret du Mile End on Wednesday, September 10. Doors open at 7 p.m, tickets cost $22 (plus fees) and can be purchased here.

I met Karneef in the window-light of a café in Parc Ex. He’s tall and lanky with a head full of wild reddish blonde hair. This guy fills the room with an energy which draws one in, not the frenetic type that sometimes gets in the way. Right away, it became apparent to me that Karneef is mad articulate and that asking him straight questions in a formal way would be a waste of time. Instead, I opened up a triptych: where have you been, where are you now, and where are you going?

“I’m from the Ottawa River Valley originally. I grew up on a horse farm, my father was a breeder,” he said. But it wasn’t all aster flowers and manure. Karneef spoke about his father’s interest in telephonics and how that early introduction to telephony opened him up to technology and music.

“I could actually tell which numbers were being dialed by hearing the tones,” he said. “I could hear tonal relationships and identify them.”

Even though Karneef is brilliant, his path as an artist hasn’t been a frozen rope; he’s faced his share of ups and downs.

“I applied to the electro-acoustics program at ConU and was rejected,” he said.

After studying for a year or so, he reapplied and was granted a conditional acceptance. He moved to Montreal with a friend who was also accepted to the program.

“Having someone there in the program with me was very motivating,” he said. “I like having my back to the wall.”

After Concordia, Karn didn’t jump slipshod into his own project. He wanted to be ready.

“It was 8 years before I started this solo project,” he said. He added offhandedly with a smirk that “everyone’s doing it these days.”

We got around to talking about what drives Karneef’s creativity—it’s this almost mystical observance of the world around him.

“I have this kindred connection with the rhythmic world,” he said. “I can’t ignore time— it’s everywhere from the pacing of people’s voices to the cars passing on the street.”

I couldn’t help but see his ability to spot these rhythmic sympathies as an offshoot or evolution of the same gift he discovered while listening into a phone receiver as a child. If you want to sample Karn’s penchant for rhythm, check this clip of him messing around on the drums:

And he doesn’t even play in his current band.

His current album Love Between Us—a soul/funk/rock/electro tour de force—was released this past November. I asked him about the process.

“I actually had to be diligent and rigorous,” he said. “I had to be disciplined.”

And then another sly aside: “I wonder if I can do it again.”

Later, he answered his own question with a faux serious “Yes.”

He told me that he’s got a slew of new tracks he feels have the potential to make an even stronger release in future.

All in all, it was a really fresh afternoon talking with an artist who has the rare ability to think deeply about his craft and articulate it in a way that doesn’t lull one into a coma. I’ll be at his show on Valentine’s Day dressed up to the nines. I’ll paint you a portrait of the show next week. Until then, I’ll try to stay in tune with the time all around me.

One.

Karneef performs Friday, February 14 at Cabaret Playhouse. Tickets cost $5 before 11 p.m. and $7 after. See the Facebook event page for more info.

Photo by Jesse Anger.

ModernThunderHiresLife can be unpredictable. As much as we try to plan for every possibility, new curve balls are constantly being thrown at us. Perhaps we should simply embrace the uncertainty of it all and clutch every moment we experience. This is precisely what the Toronto/Winnipeg based Grand Analog does on their forthcoming album Modern Thunder, due out August 20.

There was no overarching plan for the album other than to musically capture different moments in time. As a result, we are treated to a glimpse into the lives of frontman Odario Williams and his comrades, all within the context of the band’s signature heavy dose of deep grooves, catchy hooks, and flowing, spunky rhymes.

The program is diverse by design. Unlike their previous efforts Calligraffiti (2007) and Metropolis is Burning (2009) which had preconceived lyrical themes before the songs were written, for this project Williams had his crew create assorted instrumental soundscapes and based his lyrics on what he heard.

“I wanted to see the song,” he states. “I let the music decide what the song is going to be about.”

The record reflects this organic writing process that Williams describes as “effortless.”

The fact that Grand Analog is a live hip hop band, and one of Canada’s finest at that, plays a large role in the group’s identity. The relationships between Williams and his DJ brother Ofield, bass player Warren Bray, keyboardist Alister Johnson aka Catalist, and drummer TJ Garcia are the foundation that drive the group’s creativity. Williams relies heavily on the varied influences of his band mates who come from very different musical backgrounds.

“If you put all those ingredients in one pot,” he says, “you’ll understand why you have Grand Analog.”

Modern Thunder opens with the triumphant, afrobeat-infused “Lion Head” which is an apt opening and reintroduction to the band after a four year break from recording. Williams jubilantly raps, “It’s been a long time / a toast to a new beginning / I feel good ‘bout the skin I’m in.” The song features punchy horn and vocal lines à la Fela Kuti on top of unrelenting hip hop drums and percussion.

“Modern Day Fool” reveals the precarious nature of every day life in contrast with the opening track. Williams explains that during the production of the album, “any given day could have been any given thing.” On that day, it appears that Williams was feeling a bit more introspective. In the song, he raps, “I’m just a modern day fool, cool, social recluse / just a walkin’ contradiction / mother nature on the loose.” His rhymes float over a syncopated riff played on the guitar and bass and is broken up by Andrina Turenne’s bluesy, soulful hook. Williams’ carefully crafted lines throughout the album demonstrate the complexity and emotional depth of life ranging from total self confidence to self reassurance to loneliness.

Upon hearing the music for “The Great Rhyme Dropper,” Williams envisioned a superhero rapper.

“There’s only one person I had in mind to do that with me,” he said.

That person is Canadian rapper Shad, who trades boastful, effortless verses with Williams on the track. The chemistry between the two is palpable as they organically flow over the propulsive, driving funk beat and afrobeat-style horns.

 

Never to rest on their laurels musically, the band ventures into more somber territory with “Heart The Lonely Hunter” which features a thumping quarter note beat in the bass and drums and a Joni Mitchell-style vocal hook from Amanda Balsys of The Wilderness of Manitoba. Williams describes the song as representing “city life and relationships,” and his verses strike a noticeably different tone from the other songs. He raps about the challenges of finding love, saying, “Decisions are rash when you’re fearin’ attachment / I’m always on the hunt, kinda like an assassin.”

In what is perhaps a coincidence, the following song is a bouncy, trance-inducing club jam “Wild Animal Print” that describes weekend hookups with a woman who is “lookin’ for adventure.” The song is driven by a four-on-the-floor bass drum beat and a relentless syncopated synth bass line. Whether purposely juxtaposed with “Heart The Lonely Hunter” or not, each describe different aspects of love, lust, and relationships.

All the guests on Modern Thunder – and there are many – fit in with ease and contribute to the Grand Analog sound. The guests work so seamlessly because they are all friends of Williams and the band.

“Because they are also friends of mine, I knew what they were capable of and I knew that I can hear having them on this,” he explains.

Additional guests on the album include Saukrates, Len Bowen, Maylee Todd, Saidah Baba Talibah, Dennis Passley (Bedouin Soundclash), Bahia Watson, Mike Olsen (Hidden Cameras), Peter Katz, TALWST, and long time collaborators Damon Mitchell and Oliver Johnson.

tumblr_inline_mqf7qyZwoj1rpmgfuAlthough many would put them somewhere under the umbrella of hip hop, Grand Analog has many sounds and cannot be pigeonholed into any one category. Williams urges people to try to let the music speak for itself.

“People should be open to music in the first place and not judge before listening,” he says.

Whatever one might call it, the sprawling music on Modern Thunder encapsulates the realities of life. In one of his more clever and representative rhymes on the dub-influenced “Unbearable Lightness,” Williams raps, “We get together like memorex and tape decks / we get together like safe sex and latex / we get together, it don’t matter what the weather / I get busy in the summer, I get busy on the syntax.”

Regardless of its genre label, Modern Thunder deserves to be listened to by anybody who can relate to individualism, introspection, partying, city life, midnight munchies, vinyl on the deck, sex for breakfast, relationships, heartbreak, hookups, and sunshine. Did I leave anyone out?

Modern Thunder will be released in stores and online on August 20, 2013. Grand Analog will be hosting album release parties on August 20 at the Drake Underground in Toronto, and on August 22 at Union Sound Hall in Winnipeg.