BONOBO Days To Come (Ninja Tune) Rating: NNN
Can't say I've been overly impressed by any of the brooding chill-out tunes or acid jazzy club fodder that Brighton-based sampler jockey Simon Bonobo Green has come up with before, but Days To Come is a different story. Like many of his neighbourhood producer pals, Green has picked up on the 70s spiritual jazz vibe and is making more forthright use of live instruments to broaden his sound palette and rhythmic concept. But the smartest move here is bringing in smoky-voiced soul rising star Bajka to add her captivating voice to three songs that, not coincidently, turn out to be the album's three finest tracks. A second bonus disc offers instrumental versions, but unless you're planning a Bonobo karaoke party, it's kinda pointless, since it's Bajka that makes the whole project worthwhile.
CEE-LO The Collection (Arista/Sony BMG) Rating: NNNN
Since some people think Cee-Lo Green was just some session singer Danger Mouse hired to help out on the Gnarls Barkley project, it's probably a good thing that Arista is trying to cash in on all the hubbub surrounding the group with this quickly thrown together Cee-Lo retrospective. Even though the track selection includes none of his vocal collaborations or production jobs and mostly focuses on his post-Goodie Mob solo work with two Good Mob tracks tacked on at the end The Collection still shows off Cee-Lo's considerable writing, singing and rhyming skills, which turned more famous contemporaries like Common and OutKast into Cee-Lo fans long before he met Danger Mouse as a DJ contest finalist who won the honour of opening a Goodie Mob show. He was a star before Crazy hit, and he'll still be one long after it's forgotten.
NATALIE COLE Leavin' (Verve/Universal) Rating: NN
Boo, Natalie Cole. Boo. From the beginning, when Cole gets right down to grim business, working with producer Dallas Austin, to sap Fiona Apple and John Brion's sardonic Criminal of any nuance or meaning, this covers album does not bode well. With its 90s nü-Motown arrangement, a strutting riff and the canned passion of Cole's yeah, yeah, yeah!, this version makes Criminal sound like a rejected theme song from Hangin' With Mr. Cooper. Other covers of Aretha Franklin, Kate Bush, Tom Jones and the Isleys can't touch the originals, and Cole's redo of Des'ree's You Gotta Be is a pointless, uninspired imitation.
SPENCER DICKINSON The Man Who Lives For Love (Yep Roc) Rating: NNN
It was over four years ago that Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars told me about all the recordings he and his brother Cody had done with Jon Spencer, overseen by their celebrated father, producer Jim Dickinson. Now, six years after the fact, the Spencer Dickinson project is out, and surprisingly enough, it sounds closer in spirit to the old man's funky Dixie Fried R&B breakdowns than to anything associated with Spencer or the Dickinson boys. But that's a good thing. There's no pointless hollering of catchphrases, lengthy jammy bits or extended soloing. They don't attempt to impress anyone. Instead, they just get down with some slow-cooked Southern soul grooves and wallow a while.
GOVERNOR Son Of Pain (Grand Hustle/Atlantic) Rating: NNNN
When Governor Washington sings on one track that he doesn't always remember to put the toilet seat down, then soulfully references text messaging on another, the T.I. R&B protege identifies himself as part of the new generation of R&B singers who regularly embroider modern micro-detail into their lyrics. But where R. Kelly's allusive minutiae usually leads to lovemaking, Governor uses his micro-focus and frenetic flow to tell the story of a bluesy gangsta with a sordid past. The music's minor-chord pianos and sinister string arrangements couldn't be more aptly dark. Governor should find support among fans of Akon's and Anthony Hamilton's hard-bitten gospels.
MONICA The Makings Of Me (J Records/Sony BMG) Rating: NNN
Monica's come a long way from the days of cutely fighting over a boy with Brandy and singing about wanting to get down but not on the first night and not just because of the provocative topless pose on her fourth album's cover. This is an unexpectedly tough R&B record, with Mon representing ATL hard with a series of 808-clap-infected bouncers. Girl's cussing like it's going out of style, shaking her laffy taffy alongside Dem Franchize Boys, referencing R. Kelly lyrics and dissing the damn ho that did her wrong. An angry diva beatdown in the centre of the dance floor never felt so good. Ciara's princess of crunk 'n' b title just became slightly more dubious.
WHAT IT IS! Funky Soul And Rare Grooves (1967-1977) From The Vaults Of Atlantic, Atco And Warner Bros Records (Rhino/Warner) Rating: NNNN
If you don't already own the first three volumes of the Funk Drops reissue series released in the UK over the last five years, you might think the snazzy-looking What It Is! four-CD box is the greatest collection of rare funk, soul and R&B ever put out by a major label. In fact, it's really just a clever repackaging of many of the same rare funk joints from the Warner archives that previously appeared on the Funk Drops discs compiled by Rick Conrad, the associate producer of What It Is! Nevertheless, it's still a fantastic mix of highly sought-after party starters by A-list celebs like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Sly Stone and the Meters as well as lesser-known greats like the Black Haze Express, Soul Angels, Tony Alvon, Willie West, United 8, Joyce Jones, Society's Bag and the Stovall Sisters. The sweetly remastered set sounds as good as it looks. The only weak spot is Conrad's poorly researched track annotation that's fraught with uninformed and annoying conjecture and actually painful to read.
SPANKY WILSON I'm Thankful (Ubiquity) Rating: NN
When Will Quantic Holland mentioned he was writing songs for underappreciated 60s soul great Spanky Wilson's comeback album, which he was producing with an enhanced Quantic Soul Orchestra providing support, I thought he meant he'd be tailoring compositions to suit her vocal strengths. But the songs on I'm Thankful sound more like they were written for QSO belter Alice Russell. Though Wilson is a skilled enough vocal stylist to holler out staccato phrases over the strident grooves inspired by the JBs and the Meters, such a refined instrument would've been much better showcased by deep soul or jazz ballads. Regrettably, it appears that Holland can't write a simple love song to save his 45 collection, and the novice producer lacked the foresight to select a few appropriate covers that could've added some depth to this one-dimensional set.