LIVING COLOUR – Shade (Album Review)

Funky politics, a strange idea perhaps. This has however been done by a number of  bands through the years, including New Yorkers Living Colour. From the explosion of their first release Vivid, they have pricked society’s conscience whilst playing some of the most get up and dance rock and roll in many years. The good news is that on their latest release “Shade”, they up the ante.

There is plenty of politics and, when it comes to danceable, my feet never stop moving listening to it. I even found taking notes difficult, due to tapping along and just wanting to move along with the songs. There are a huge variety of sounds on this record, including blues (which is at the heart of it), funk, metal, hip-hop and rap. It all merges wonderfully well.

Unusually for a band of such longevity and creativity, there are 3 covers on the album, dating back as far as the 1930s and up to the 1990s. They all help to create a theme and explore the idea that somehow humankind never seems to learn from its mistakes.

The first word or vocal is simply “hey”, a call to listen up before a hard-rocking funky riff kicks in. Lyrics are provided about individuality, saying there is “no left, no right, no middle, no divide” and pointing out simply that we are all people who should be free to be who we are. With a cracking guitar solo, “Freedom Of Expression (F.O.X)” is a fabulous opening.

The first cover (“Preachin’ Blues”) is a song from the 1930s by Robert Johnson. Funked up, metallized but still bluesy, this brings an old song right up to date. Again, Vernon Reid shows his skills and versatility by a different style of solo on this from his previous works. No wonder he is so admired by many guitarists around the world.

Come On” has a “Shaft”-style guitar near the start, but during the song itself there are elements of scratching and hip-hop (it is still rock).  It is not often bands in the rock or metal genres are bold enough or brave enough to show (or indeed incorporate) different styles of music in their material. Wonder if technically, by being so bold and taking chances, they should be also be called progressive?

The second cover is from an artist that I personally didn’t know at all in The Notorious B.I.G. “Who Shot Ya” was apparently about a dispute between 2 rappers and, having read the lyrics of the original, is quite personal, whereas Living Colour have focussed on it as a political or socially aware song about gun crime in the USA. It is dark and heavy in mood as well as word.

The bass work of Doug Wimbish on “Pattern In Time” is particularly fun. The song is probably the fastest track on the album and has a crazy guitar ending.

Who’s That” is a brilliant track and, for me, the highlight of the album. An old school sounding blues track, beefed up with trombone and what sounds like an organ in places. It is funked up to the nth degree. I defy anyone not to start grooving to it. It contains blues, rock and a heartful of soul (yes, a deliberate reference to The Yardbirds song of the same name). Corey Glover nails it vocally. Jaw dropping stuff, especially the vocal interspersed with guitar section three quarters of the way through. Only thing wrong about it is that it is not long enough. On every play of the album, I had to hit the repeat and listen to it a second time before continuing with the rest of the album. It is just that good.     

There are so many nice moments or touches throughout the rest of Shade, including the lyrical wordplay on “Invisible” and the sarcastic opening of “Program”, where the question is who are Living Colour and are there any other black rock bands out there.  Finally, there is the very thoughtful and more restrained ending song “Two Sides”, which has a guest appearance by George Clinton from Parliament-Funkadelic.

In a year of many excellent releases, this is more than likely going to be in my personal top 10 albums of the year. It has been a long wait for new material from one of the most exciting and inventive bands in the last 30 years. It has pleasingly been worth the wait.

Buy: Shade

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