MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Joan Armatrading, Hard Nips, The Montreux Years

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

As Joan Armatrading recently told the New York Times, she was born to write songs; “I always say I can’t take credit for it because I did nothing for it. All I did was be born, and was then given this gift.” And there are always more songs to be written. On her latest album, Consequences (BMG), Armatrading brings her keen insight about the inner workings of relationships to a set of well-crafted songs of joy and heartbreak.

Given Armatrading’s generally upbeat outlook, there’s more of the former than the latter. The buoyant “Natural Rhythm” and “Glorious Madness” each capture the delirious, giddy rush of newfound love. “To Be Loved,” couples the lush harmonies of the chorus with wonderful observations like “Every day feels like a weekend with you around.” “Already There” is sung from the unique perspective of having already fallen in love and waiting for the object of your desire to catch up.

“Consequences” opens with watery-sounding keyboards before pivoting into a taut, edgy backing that’s perfect for illustrating the roiling turbulence that’s descended into a relationship. The closing song, “To Anyone Who Will Listen” is a heartfelt plea for connection, reaching out for solace. “Sunrise” is a laidback instrumental, with a shuffling beat, the lead melody traded between guitar and piano. Armatrading’s distinctive musical mix draws on rock, jazz, pop, blues (and she’s playing all the instruments as well), and arrangements featuring all sorts of percussive rhythms percolating underneath. It’s a great, optimistic album to welcome in the summer.

Hard Nips might have formed in Brooklyn in 2009, but their music has a late ’70s/early ’80s pop/punk/new wave vibe ‑ think Blondie, B-52’s, the Ramones. Smart and sharp, a bit of an edge, but a good dose of humor as well. The Japanese foursome (bassist Gooch, drummer Hitomi, and keyboard/vocalist Yoko born in Japan, guitarist Saki hailing from Long Island) are drawn as stylish superheroes on the cover of their new album Master Cat (Dadstache Records), soaring through the air as they spread the gospel of “sex, sushi and rock ‘n’ roll!!!”

Great, chunky guitar is to the forefront here, as you’ll hear from the kickoff, “Blender,” which also has a kitschy keyboard line. The album is mostly on the up-tempo side: the strut of “Workaholic;” “Analog Guys,” with its propulsive “My Sharona”-esque backbeat; the quirky “Motto.” Then there’s the moody “Cupid Devil,” where everyone gets a chance to be in the instrumental spotlight. The title track mixes it up, opening with an ethereal keyboard and a cool vocal, then shifting gears to a bright, poppy beat before spiraling down again into the mist.

“The Montreux Years” is a new series of recordings launched by the Montreux Jazz Festival and BMG, celebrating the many artists who’ve performed at the Festival, and featuring rare and previously unreleased material. And the first two releases in series are by some true legends: Etta James: The Montreux Years and Nina Simone: The Montreux Years.

James’ album draws on concerts from 1977 to 1993, with the CD version also including her first appearance at the Festival, on July 11, 1975. “I can’t speak French,” she explains to the audience at the start of the set. “The only thing I can say you might be able to understand is ‘Get down.’ Can you say that? Get down! Get down!” Having won the crowd over, it’s straight into a steaming version of “Respect Yourself;” sterling performances of the blues standard “Dust My Broom,” a slow and soulful take of T. Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday,” and James’ own decidedly bawdy “W-O-M-A-N” follow. The album also features sizzling renditions of some of her best known work, like “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” “Tell Mama,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

Simone’s album features songs from each of her five performances at the Festival, including her very first appearance on June 16, 1968, the first time the complete show has been available on CD. It’s a riveting set, opening with Morris Bailey Jr.’s fierce “Go to Hell,” with potent lyrics that still resonate: “So you’re living high and mighty/Rich off the fat of the land/Just don’t dispose of your natural soul/Cause you know darn well/That you’ll go to hell.” You can never hear “Backlash Blues” too many times, and she reworks “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “House of the Rising Sun” and makes them her own. Elsewhere, Simone covers Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” and delivers an absolutely stunning version of Janis Ian’s “Stars,” which is mostly just Simone and her own piano accompaniment.

As a bonus, this month also sees the digital release of Simone’s classic 1959 debut album, Little Girl Blue (BMG/Bethlehem Jazz), in a new stereo mix that gives the music a fresh, crisp sound. This album introduced the world to Simone’s unique mix of classical and jazz influences; check out her breezy performance on “Mood Indigo” and her inventive reworking of the title track. The album comes out on colored vinyl in July, and black vinyl and CD in August.

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