Review: Connie Price and the Keystones, Tell Me Something
Good music, odd CD. Connie Price is the studio name of producer and multi-instumentalist Dan Ubick. When they first started to record, the Keystones were primarily Ubick and trumpet player Todd M. Simon with Ubick playing most of the instruments. On “Tell Me Something”, the band’s second full length CD, the Keystones are a full band of session musicians with Ubick restricting himself to drums, percussion and electric guitars.
“Tell Me Something”, like Galactic’s recent CD “From the Corner to the Block“, makes hip-hop out of a variety of MCs combined with musicians playing instruments rather than producers constucting music tracks out of samples. The music on “Tell Me Something” is strongly funk and R&B influenced, the arrangements are solid, and the band is tight. These guys could have stepped out on stage in a Soul Review in the ’70s and knocked the sudience dead. With Ubick focusing on drums, the Keystones, like Galactic, are drum oriented with clattering funk rhythms prominently anchoring the songs. This works well with MC driven music that puts the vocals up front. With an array of keyboards, a full horn section and a string quartet the Keystones provide a much fuller sound than Galactic who are doing it all with five guys. Also, Galactic shoots more for a live production of the multi-sound, layered sample approach to hip hop while the Keystones are focused more on soul-review style band arrangements. Both methods are successful in their different ways.
I found the MCs the weakest aspect of “Tell Me Something”. The vocals range from rhythmic rapid fire word rhyming to singing. For the most part it’s the same old same old which results in the music being much more intriguing than the vocals. Set against the more typical background of sampled and constructed beats the vocals might work better but when supported by these inventive and well played arrangements they come across as ordinary and uninteresting. You keep wanting the MCs to step up to the level of the musicians, or, if they can’t, to get out of the way.
What’s odd about the CD is that it includes two discs, the one I’ve described and a second that presents the same program with the vocals stripped out. Even though all of the tracks except two were arranged to support the MCs, which holds the horn section in particular in check, most of these songs are much more interesting to listen to without the vocals. The instrumental disc is the one we end up listening to most of the time. Why would the band give us the music-only CD in addition to the regular one? My first thought was that they are justifiably proud of the music and want the audience to hear it. But the audience can hear it as it was meant to be played on the vocal CD. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the band thought the vocals were more of a hinderance than a help and released the music-only disc so the audience could appreciate the band without the distraction of the vocals.
Whatever the reason for releasing two discs, the result is the best of both worlds for the listener. If you like the work being done by the MCs, it’s there for you to enjoy; if you think the arrangements and musicianship sound better when heard alone, you can listen to them with the vocals taken out. “Tell Me Something” works either way and can be enjoyed by listeners who like soul reviews, hip hop, or a combination of the two. It’s all good.
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