Living Colour gives us fair and balanced for those who fear becoming unbalanced.
(Editor’s Note: Living Colour is performing at the Newport Jazz Festival on August 3rd. Seemed to be a good occasion to post critic Milo Miles’s thoughts on their most recent album, Shade, the group’s first since 2009’s The Chair in the Doorway.)
By Milo Miles
There was every reason to expect veteran art-metal, rock-funksters Living Colour’s new Shade (Megaforce) would benefit from fortunate release timing. That is, by appearing in a cultural turmoil when the idea of Resist has become more essential than optional. An added glow of wisdom and defiance had already gathered around A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service last year and more recently boosted the impact of protest projects like Hooray for the Riff Raff’s The Navigator and Thievery Corporation’s The Temple of I &I.
Living Colour’s guitarist Vernon Reid and vocalist Corey Glover seize the opening moment with “Freedom of Expression (F.O.X.),” where they sound like nothing less than an upgrade of their smart, articulate selves. Reid adds a solo that slyly tweaks the songs initial riff, Glover makes you feel the sense of “not left or right, just wrong or right,” throw in a sample from Malcolm X and we have fair and balanced for those who fear becoming unbalanced.
History exposition continues with a remake of Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues,” which the band claims was the foundation for the Shade undertakings. Reid shuns any hint of another rock remake with a torrent of electronic distortions as fluent as any manual string bending. But the champ innovator is drummer Will Calhoun, who takes an original with no rhythm track and creates a spare series of smacks that combine the momentums of metal and hip-hop. Once again, Robert Johnson rides down a highway with no end.
But there are bumps. As ever, listeners must make a separate peace with Glover’s vocals, which no matter what the comparisons, are blues-rock oldies, shopworn with nearly 30 years of use and personality-free at slow tempos. Glover aspires to assimilate blues-on-down history without quite getting there; Reid achieves his mission to push plugged-in guitar into the next soundwaves. Maybe most striking here are the phrases he uses in “Come On” — are those riffs backwards? cleverly clipped? just distorted in a new way? Bassist Doug Wimbish throbs like some gigantic bird and provides much of the entertaining momentum in the otherwise dutifully professional middle tracks like “Blak Out.” Living Colour spent five years on and off with producer Andre Betts on this material and the lesser results are not so much overworked as not showing much juice to squeeze out in the first place.
All issues of time and temperament fall away for the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” near the end of Shade. This is a band and vintage protest that had to meet. After a spoken suffering-is-ever-the-same intro by Umar Bin Hassan (of the Last Poets), Glover and the chorus find an unexpected stock of airy sweetness, Wimbish and Calhoun repave the ghetto streets and Reid blends wailing voices and police sirens in his break. This belongs on the big Living Colour retrospective later, when we might not need to affirm that “this ain’t livin’.”
Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.