As a music reviewer, I get a lot of albums for potential coverage. A lot. And to manage the flow, I keep a spreadsheet, cataloging those slated for eventual review according to the date I receive them, genre, and a few other details. It makes for handy organization.
But occasionally something comes along that brings about what one might describe as delightful confusion. A sense of “what exactly is this?” For me, the latest example of this phenomenon is Work Songs from Jaimeo Brown Transcendence. It’s difficult to describe, but worth my effort to do so. The disc opens with “Hidden Angel,” a mash-up of field hollers (sharecroppers? Convicts?) set against minimal percussion and a forlorn saxophone. That tune quickly gives way to “Mississippi,” a stomping blues – with harmonica and wildly distorted electric guitar – and some roaring blues vocalization. “Lazarus” is a capella gospel chanting with atmospheric electronics, odd drum rolls, and that haunting sax again. “Safflower” samples a scratchy vinyl record and some wailing (sampled) female vocals that sound straight out of Japan, with a melody to match.
The whole album is like that: wildly varying sonic textures all coming together in some kind of cohesive whole. The liner notes provide some helpful context: “Throughout history, human being have chanted, hummed and sung their way through the drudgery of labor. These sounds are the living tapestry of our human story.” And Work Songs is a project designed to set that story against a modern musical backdrop that is both arty and accessible. Once can imagine Work Songs being played as part of an art installation. But it’s far too good to serve as accompaniment for someone else’s art; it stands on its own with inviting – and very melodic – tracks like “Be So Glad” and “Happy Serving,” respectively full of understated, crystalline piano and warm synthesizer textures.
Work Songs isn’t solely concerned with the past: “2113” suggests a future in which we’re mining on Mars, and – you guessed it – the drudgery is still performed by lowly humans, not machines. While the saxophone trills out a hypnotic line, the percussion brings alive the ambience of mine workers performing their endlessly repetitive (and endless) tasks. Some wild electric guitar sneaks in here and there.
Work Songs is an odd album. It’s a serious one, too. And there’s no neat genre classification into which it can fit. But it’s deeply intriguing, and worth hearing for anyone interested in something a little outside the mainstream.