Thursday, October 16, 2014

'Something In Between': A review of "Hit Me With Music" by Sara Lugo

Tagless. Placing things into categories and labelling them is just a matter of grand convenience in my opinion. It makes it much easier to find things, refer to them and to remember them at some point in the future. In the absence of such a habit - you can imagine going to a restaurant and ordering food and having them bring you a plate of car keys and a bill to match because "restaurant" is no longer the place to go for (hopefully) good food when you don't feel like cooking and instead is just… that place where they… sell stuff. On more familiar terms - if you place it into a context of music, can you think of what might happen if suddenly musical categories were eliminated? We use words such as 'genre' to mark the distinction between styles but if not for that maybe we could do things alphabetically and in your search for the likes of Beenie Man, Bounty Killer and Bunji Garlin, you'd likely have a virtually endless line of Beethoven and David Bowie to sift through as well. So labels definitely do have their place but occasionally their function exists at its greatest to suggest, rather than to actually designate. In music this is continuously true as vocalists, producers and musicians mix styles on a seemingly endless basis. What we're dealing with today, however, is something which is far less planned and programmed and, instead, is as organic and untreated as a good nap (the best naps are when you don't lay down and say that you're going to take a nap but just kind of fall asleep unintentionally). It echoes of the previously mentioned Bunji Garlin who (is a perfect connection considering what he's doing these days) [new album, "Differentology", in stores now] MASTERED a brand of Soca music which was absolutely flooded with colours and textures of Dancehall music and what may have been regarded as a gimmick at one time has helped to make him into one of the greatest of all time. And while I may be the only one (I am) who would draw a direct line of comparison between fire-breathing Trini Soca lyrics king Garlin and cavity-causingly sweet singing German Sara Lugo [WHAT!] [BOOM!], what the latter has managed to do in developing something so damn infectiously unusual that she was born with has been no less fascinating. Listening to what she has done, even in single spots, has been as compelling as anyone that I consistently listen to over the course of the past half decade and, most fortunately, I see no end in sight.  
"What About Love" [2011]
For her music, the tool Sara Lugo utilizes is a delightful mixture of Reggae and more traditional Jazz. And while she may have peers, on paper, amongst the likes of an Ernest Ranglin or someone like that, what she is capable of doing, as a vocalist, I don't think I have EVER heard anyone do before her and I've been hooked from the first moment I really took a deep listen. Back in 2011, wonderfully, some of those aforementioned "single spots" decided to come together and hang out on "What About Love", Lugo's outstanding debut album release from Oneness Records. In retrospect that set, which brought together major moments such as 'Familiar Stranger', 'Part of My Life', 'Soul Chaos' (my current favourite) and so many others, so impeccably displayed her skills and stands as one of the better debut albums in recent years in my opinion. From then, Lugo certainly has not been invisible and she's made some excellent music in the three years since (for example, she did a tune called 'Om Tare', dig it up, it shows perfectly exactly what that amazing voice is capable of. It is a HALTING performance). And I do have to say that she's become a definitive favourite of ours. Along with making fantastic music and doing it with a very different and captivating style - she's also been a very nice person and if you haven't noticed (shame on you!) I've basically spent the last three years SHOUTING to anyone who would listen just how much you need to be paying to attention to this woman's music.  

And now I'm going to shout even louder! Through stringing together some very strong singles and making appearances on various projects, eventually we would arrive at an album I've pretty much been look forward to from… immediately after I heard "What About Love" and today, it’s here! Sara Lugo and Oneness Records present her highly anticipated sophomore set, "Hit Me With Music". Someone will have to do something RIDICULOUS over the course of the final two and half months of 2014 to keep me from proclaiming the Germany based Oneness the best European label of the year as they have been on a ROLL which has been highlighted by now releasing the second of a pair of albums that I have really been looking forward to (more on that in a minute). Just like its predecessor, "Hit Me With Music" is headed by the esteemed Umberto Echo and, to his credit, it is an immaculately put-together record. To her credit, Sara Lugo, herself, appears to have taken more of a pronounced role in making this album as well. Along with taking a production credit for the entire album, with Echo), Lugo also helped in recording a few of the album's twelve songs (nearly half by my surely incorrect count) and on at least one song, she even plays an instrument. And you could use that to springboard into a nice examination about growth and development as a musician, which is probably the best direction to go in - me, on the other hand, my first thought was just how cool of an idea that was and, looking forward, to what we might find her doing on future albums. As for now, however, where Sara Lugo musically sits in 2014 - she's doing fantastic. Let me tell you about it… and even if you don't stick around, I'm just going to keep going anyway.
My first thought about the new album was one which has somewhat dissipated after listening to it, for the most part, endlessly this week. I thought that, when compared to the first, album #2 was a bit more open and Jazz-centric and while that may be true in the broadest sense I don't think it is such a large portion of the story behind this one. You don't look back at "What About Love" now as this Reggaefied powerhouse (with tunes like 'Soul Chaos', 'Locked Away' ["… said you won't hurt me, but you did it anyway"] [BOOM!] and 'If Tears'), instead, it is best remembered, again, as this project which so vividly demonstrated the most curious plurality of the talent of its star. Three years later and Sara Lugo's second album, "Hit Me With Music", in that respect, picks up right where its older sister left off and where it literally picks up is on the joyous and Ska-ish 'The One'. First of all, you'll love the bounce behind this track and Lugo uses it to back one of the sweetest vocal displays on the whole of the album, for a piece which finds her some form of hypnotized by a special person who has caught her attention. Also displaying well is the player of the horn on the tune who shines particularly during the latter stages. A fine start. Things stay on a similar note but get a lot more colourful on the album's second selection, 'Really Like You'. The first of three combinations here, on the Silly Walks produced 'Really Like You' Sara Lugo is joined by the always interested Protoje. There is a really intriguing quality about this tune and, if you are looking to classify things, for me this one fits both feet firmly in Reggae and Jazz/Soul. It is crawling and funky and, as expected, the two deliver in a big way on a tune sure to grab a whole heap of notice on "Hit Me With Music". Another song which should do that, which takes us right up to the gate and drops us off at Jazz' front door, is 'Hit Me With Music'


BOOM! For me, this song is one about people underrating and misusing music. Lugo speaks about how music has become robotic and mostly about business and, somehow, people have managed to take it in the wrong damn direction ["Quantity before quality - is that what we want and need? Music's just a commodity in the world economy"] - overlooking the most important part of it which is the MUSIC and all of its wonderful qualities. Easily one of the best songs on the album named after it (and I should spray some credit around because the horn on this one is also impressive and a Max Wittmann plays on both tunes, so biggup Max Wittmann - WELL DONE!) is the song which is probably best appreciated while wearing sunglasses… and a hat. 

Sara Lugo, herself, actually addresses the idea of using labels and categories (which is where I got the idea from) on another very big moment here and one which directly shows things in her unique perspective, 'Black & White'. As far as I know, Lugo is half-German and half-Puerto Rican and she musically embraces both on this big, big tune. 

"I'm not too much of my Mother
Not too much of my Father
So if you wanna go one way, what if I chose another?
Does that make you right?
And it makes me wrong?
No matter what, I'm a be me
No matter what, I'm a be free
You don't have to accept it but I hope one day you'll see

I'm not Black and I'm not White
I'm something in between and that's alright
Believe me, it's alright
Cause I'm not Black and I'm not White
I'm something in between and that's alright
Believe me, it's alright

I'm a be me and I won't quit
What you see is what you get
I'm a live my life with no regrets
Little bit of this, I'm a little bit of that
Little bit of White, I'm a little bit of Black

Along with it (like the title track) being amongst the best written songs on this album, again, 'Black & White' is absolutely delightful to listen to and a real highlight on "Hit Me With Music". "Highlight" is a good word to describe the tune which follows 'Black & White', the all kinds of interesting 'Soldiers Of Love'. I'm not even going to attempt to describe this one in terms of being of a particular sound or genre but I will tell you that it reminds me of something. A few years ago, Lugo did a tune called 'Night Race' which was a part of a soundtrack for a racing documentary and I always remember that as 'the light song' because every time I hear it I picture bright lights in a dark room (for some reason) and now 'the light song' has a sequel because I get the same feeling from 'Soldiers Of Love'. For me the actual composition here is a broad call to action. It is a song about doing standing up for yourself and for everything that you are and what you are capable of. It's also a piece about overcoming adversity and negative people that you will encounter in life at some point. Furthermore (I just like to break stuff down), from the other side, it's also about not being that negative asshole who is always telling someone what they can't do. The song does 'appreciate' its sound, especially later on where it builds momentum and dazzles the listener as the 'Minister of Defence' returns. Not to be missed. The first half of "Hit Me With Music" ends in a very comfortable and unfortunately entirely relatable way with 'I Wish'. This track is an apology and, as someone who has done wayyyyyyyyyy too much stuff in his life that I have had to apologize for, I appreciate it - with the prevailing sentiment being: Sometimes you fuck up with other people. Learn how to say that you're sorry for it. Lugo, along with a Lionel Wharton, does the music for both 'Soldiers Of Love' and 'I Wish' (and she helps on the title track as well) which are the direct examples taking a next step in her career. 
The second half of "Hit Me With Music" features the other two large combinations, a trio of very solid efforts and my absolute favourite song on the album as well. The most popular song on the album is definitely 'High & Windy' which was the first link between Lugo and someone who is turning out to be one of the greatest wordsmiths in all of Reggae music, the constantly scalding Kabaka Pyramid. The tune was carried through via Oneness' indomitable ReggaeVille Riddim (it was also the most popular song there too) and has not lost a twinkle of its lustre over the past two or three years and, hopefully, appearing on this album, it gets the attention of a new batch of listeners because it deserves it. As I alluded to, earlier this year Oneness gave us another album I'd been really looking forward to (THANK YOU! Thank you Oneness) by the name of "Salam", which was a big album from Indonesian chanter, Ras Muhamad. That release carried a piece by the name of 'Learn To Grow' which featured Sara Lugo and the song also makes it way to "Hit Me With Music". This one is still very fresh and hasn't even found its way off of my radars but maybe now is a good time for it to find its way on to yours if it hasn't already (I always think about how Reggae music brought together two such diverse talents in that particular case and did it on a big song). The well esteemed Al.Ta.Fa.An helps Lugo with a pair of damn strong selections in 'Love The Children' and 'More Love'. The former is a regrettably necessary social commentary because people continue to mistreat children. This message is also wrapped up in a very nice package which includes a second half as an entire instrumental which, in my opinion, was a very nice idea. As for 'More Love' (which is my Wife's favourite song on the album), it is JOY to listen to. Though a fairly straight forward love song, I did have to listen to this one quite a few times to illuminate some difficult to describe quality it had. Eventually, after paying a great deal of attention, I got it: ‘More Love' has an excellent riddim (featuring the handiwork of the masterful Dean Fraser, just like the song before it) but the vocals here are on another planet. Sara Lugo doesn't stretch her voice, she probably could sing this song in exactly this same way if she was laying down, but everything that comes out of her mouth -- even when you hear her humming at song's end, during another extended instrumental -- is immaculate! It is subtle, but it may be one of the best SANG songs that I've heard her do which places it in a fine company. The company on "Hit Me With Music" is at its own finest, for me, with the MAMMOTH 'Play With Fire'.

"Most of the time we know what is right -
Yet we do what is wrong, cause we do what we like
Your Mama, she told you 'be honest, be good, treat others the way that you would -
Want them to treat you'
The devil misleads you 
Temptation is king in the struggle that we're living in
We're human, we're full of sin
Bless my heart and keep me far from temptation

Well if you play with fire, you will get burned
I, learned my lesson and yes, it hurts
Don't play with fire
Don't play with fire
Don't play with fire"

In a similar method to 'I Wish' (which is the song right before it), 'Play With Fire' tackles a very real and relatable experience in life: Facing consequences of your own actions. It's a matter of maturity (which Lugo deals with directly) and growing up and it's very important. That would have definitely been enough to get my attention but this song is also propelled by one of the strongest musical performances and arrangements here as well, courtesy of  Giuseppe Coppola. A fantastic selection and one which IMMEDIATELY joined my personal favourite Sara Lugo songs ["You're a part of my liiiiiiiiife! I'm a part of youuuuuuuuurs!"]. Lastly, you can't have an album like this and not have an acoustic song ("the acoustic remix of 'Familiar Stranger' was on "What About Love") and that is taken care of on "Hit Me With Music" by the well fascinating 'Never Ever'. I do have a theory about this song which I'll keep (at least until the rewind) but I do think that, at its core, this is a song about growing up and making mistakes in youth which can and often do follow you, in one way or another, throughout your life. But the sound here is somewhere else. It is an acoustic song, but it explodes into this R&B-ish vibe and we also hear Sara Lugo rapping at one point (WHAT!). So definitely spend a little longer on 'Never Ever', what is there is something which requires it. 
Overall, I do have to admit that though I do attempt to be so, I am most certainly NOT unbiased and impartial when it comes to this album. As I said (or at least tried to), I love Sara Lugo's music, I could likely listen to her sing a textbook or two and be pleased. So, unsurprisingly, I like Hit Me With Music". I really like "Hit Me With Music". It's always a point of mine to not compare albums and I won't do it in this case, but what I will say is that if you listen to both of her albums now, you get a very healthy feel for Sara Lugo's style and all of its endearing eccentricities and you never get the feeling of something being pulled together. Hers is a method which is organic and seamless. And, as I knew it would, the more you get into the album the question of what to call her music is one which loses interest continuously - it becomes less and even less of a main point of fascination. Instead, what stands out is the work and for this album, the vibe is exquisite! So, while I do run the risk of having to buy a car the next time I just don't feel like cooking, perhaps it is time to stop looking for a perfect way to categorize this sound and start calling it what it is: GOOD. Sara Lugo scores a unanimous decision victory on the engaging "Hit Me With Music".

Rated: 4.40/5
Oneness Records
CD + Digital

Review #529

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