Jay-Z Magna Carta Holy Grail/Universal
What an amazing empire Jay-Z has amassed. He’s involved in business ventures that range from clothing lines to nightclubs to sports teams, he’s married to another entertainment icon, Beyonce, and he will soon launch his own sports talent agency.
Oh, yeah, and he records rap albums in his spare time.
On Jay-Z’s latest effort, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” the hip-hop artist attempts to carry on a winning streak that began with his comeback album, “Kingdom Come,” in 2006 after a brief retirement.
The opening track, “Holy Grail,” kicks off with Justin Timberlake’s falsetto vocals before Jay-Z comes in to rap about the pressures of success and stardom, citing fellow artists that range from MC Hammer to Kurt Cobain.
On “Picasso Baby,” the artist declares himself the new version of the song’s titular name, while boasting and listing the ways he’ll only become more powerful. Jay-Z has always been masterful at this cornerstone of the rap game, and while other rappers can only sing about piles of cash, Jay actually has the green to back up the talk.
Later on the album, Frank Ocean contributes to one of the album’s best tracks, “Oceans,” which gives both Ocean and Jay-Z a chance to shine.
Other tracks feature guests that include Rick Ross and Beyonce.
And while Jay-Z still seems to have a passion for recording and performing, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” just doesn’t seem to be as cohesive an album as it could be. One could argue that a man running a half-billion dollars’ worth of business ventures might have more than just writing lyrics to worry about, and I’d agree with you. Still, even with his numerous distractions, Jay-Z’s new album is still light years better than Kanye West’s recent tepid release.
Key Tracks: “Holy Grail,” “Oceans,” “Crown”
Scud Mountain Boys Do You Love the Sun/Ashmont
When last we heard from alt-country darlings Scud Mountain Boys, its members were basking in the glow of critical praise for the band’s 1996 release, “Massachusetts.”
Well, at least that’s what we thought was happening.
In reality, the band broke up soon after the release of that great album, and it appeared that fans would have to make due with memories of the band’s three albums and its special performance style of sitting around a kitchen table on stage.
Apparently time heals all wounds, though, because in 2011, band members Joe Pernice, Stephen Desaulniers and Bruce Tull reunited to play a string of shows.
Things apparently went well enough that they went into the studio and recorded “Do You Love the Sun,” the first new Scud Mountain Boys album in more than 16 years.
The high lonesome sound is still there and still being played effectively by the band. For fans of bands such as Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, the music on “Do You Love the Sun” is probably going to mark some of the best moments you’ll have listening to downer alt-country tunes this year.
The title track kicks things off on a starkly beautiful note, while later tracks such as “Learn to Love Him” and “She Falls Apart” owe more to bands such as Gomez and The Waterboys.
The best track, “Crown of Thorns,” finds the band channeling the late, great Johnny Cash, and the addition of a cover of “Theme from Midnight Cowboy” makes for a nice interlude.
The band’s tendency to follow the less-is-more method of recording works beautifully here. With music this gorgeous, let’s hope it doesn’t take the band another 16 years to release another album.
Key Tracks: “Do You Love the Sun,” “Crown of Thorns” “Learn to Love Him”
Earl Poole Ball Pianography/Tin Tube Tunes
If the name Earl Poole Ball doesn’t immediately leap out at you, you can be forgiven. Start listing the guy’s accomplishments, though, and the eyes of any country music geek are likely to get wide with recognition.
Since writing his first songs at the age of 16, Ball has recorded with acts that include The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Wanda Jackson, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
In 1973, Ball got a gig recording with Johnny Cash and his band, which led to a regular job recording and touring with The Man in Black. Ball stayed with Cash until the country legend retired in 1997.
On Ball’s new album, “Pianography,” there is a mix of old and new material, and it is aimed at pleasing hardcore fans while also showing the uninitiated what got Ball to this point in his career.
The first seven tracks are the new material, five of which Ball either wrote or co-wrote. Songs such as “Standing at the Edge of the World” and “Sing It Boy” demonstrate Ball’s style, which was nurtured growing up in Mississippi and honed in clubs in Texas.
The best new track is “Say You Love Me,” which finds Ball singing with Cindy Cashdollar while playing his trademark honky-tonk piano style.
The CD also features four live tracks recorded in 2010, and includes covers of Cash’s “Big River,” Roy Orbison’s “Down the Line” and a great arrangement of the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
The remaining two tracks, “Second and San Antone” and “Flowers on Papa’s Grave,” were recorded earlier in Ball’s career, but give listeners a chance to compare Ball’s voice in the ’60s and ’70s as compared to today.
From the sound of it, Ball is still as passionate about recording and performing now as he was back then.
Key Tracks: “Standing at the Edge of the World,” “Say You Love Me,” “Second and San Antone”
By Devin Grant