California Sounds: Nite Jewel, Derrick Anderson and Adam Turchin
Nite Jewel, aka Ramona Gonzalez. (Leo García)
When a young woman with a philosophy degree has a song called “The Answer,” you might expect something a little heavier than what Nite Jewel, aka Ramona Gonzalez, has done. But you also might not expect something so pleasurable.
Having taken the Nite Jewel nom-de-music while still an undergrad at Occidental College more than a decade ago, she’s long sought a balance between heavy and light, between art and pop in her songs and videos. Heck, she had a 2011 song asking the ultimate philosophy question, “Am I Real?” posed in bubbly electro-pop and accompanied by a dreamscape video befitting someone who has done multimedia installations. And she has collaborated with always-arty Angeleno musician Julia Holter in the combined guise of Jewelia.
But with her new album, “Real High,” she’s given herself over to the pure joys -- and sorrows -- of love in the sensual realm, not the philosophical one, and is inviting us to join her in that pursuit. That invitation comes in the delightful form of understated, silky-smooth soul-pop, her lovely voice set in spare, deftly crafted electronics made by her and her producer/husband Cole M.G.N., who has worked with Beck, Snoop Dogg and many others. And yet, throughout the album there’s a smartness, and artfulness, at every turn. It almost seems, in the title of another highlight from the album, “2 Good 2 Be True.”
As that title’s spelling might tip off, there’s a strong grounding here in the music of the early ‘80s. You could easily imagine the silky-smooth, understated sounds of almost anything here slotted alongside, oh, a Madonna song on MTV late night circa 1983, or used as a cool-down track in the hands of a savvy club deejay around that same time. It’s not a big shift -- she’s cited Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey among her influences. But there’s both a dreaminess and maturity in these tracks that break away from any nostalgia.
If you’ve seen the Bangles in the last decade or so, you may have been wondering, “Who’s that guy off to the side?” Well, that’s Derrick Anderson. If you’ve had the great pleasure of being at any of the shows done in the L.A. area by the Wild Honey organizations — all-star full-album benefit tributes to the Beatles, Big Star, the Band and so on — you’ve seen Anderson anchoring the house band as well.
So then you won’t be too surprised to hear that his solo album, the first after a long career primarily as a sideman, is a full-on blast of power-pop glory. Or maybe you didn’t notice him. He tends to be a quiet guy, stays out of the spotlight, just gets the job done. But that has won him a fan base among his fellow musicians, and many of them eagerly joined in to help on this.
“A World of My Own” is populated with the three principal Bangles, the Smithereens, three Cowsills, Kim Shattuck of the Muffs and Pandoras, Steve Barton of Translator -- most of them Big Honey regulars, too. And, on the somber waltz “Spring,” Anderson reunites with Robby Rist, Wil O’Brien and Marc Joseph, his partners in the ’90s-‘00s L.A. band the Andersons! (exclamation point included).
“Revolver”-esque guitars (naturally) chime throughout, from the very first notes of opener “Send Me Down a Sign.” There’s a swampy Creedence-via-Memphis kick to “You Don’t Have to Hurt No More.” “Waiting for You,” featuring the Smithereens, has a bit of that band’s darkness -- the Smithereens are a clear influence in several of the songs. And the Beatles (naturally) are never really out of earshot, implicitly present throughout and implicitly in “Happiness,” with its “Dr. Robert”-like riff, and “Stop Messin’ About,” with an audience cheering along to evoke the Fabs’ Shea Stadium romp through “I’m Down.”
As if there’s any doubt, the set closes with “Norwegian Wood,” transformed into a garage-rock rave (though with the odd choice to replace John Lennon’s original, dreamy melody with an enthusiastic, but less-interesting line).
OK, so it’s not exactly, as one song title puts it, “Something New.” Anderson and friends still put some sparkle on the old sounds.
As the title suggests, “Manifest Destiny” is the story of a westward journey, in this case the one taken seven years ago by sax player and composer Adam Turchin when he left his Philadelphia home in a beat-up car for the wild frontier of Los Angeles, having sold all but one of his instruments to pay his way.
It was a fortuitous trek, as soon on arrival he met musician and producer Terrace Martin, who in turn introduced him to Kendrick Lamar, who brought Turchin in to play baritone on what turned out to be one of the defining albums of recent years, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The jazz elements, with Turchin, Martin and Kamasi Washington among the contributors, were key to that triumph.
With "Manifest Destiny," Turchin triumphs in a different way. This is not jazz per se, nor is it really hip-hop, though it involves elements of both. It’s something of an impressionist amalgam, Turchin as composer, arranger, orchestrator, producer, playing keyboards, guitar, electronics and, of course, sax, supplemented by a small cast of other musicians. Martin makes a couple of appearances and vocalists Rose Gold, Kate Faust, Javier Starks and Brandon Ashe each get billing as “primary artist” on various songs.
The titles give some hints to the story: “Gold Rush,” “My Mind is Moving So Crazy,” “Tell Me No Dreams; Sell Me No Schemes” and “Fruition” make up one sequence. “Destiny Is Just a Dream” wraps up the combination of gratitude and determination. And it’s no accident that there is repeated use of the terms dream and destiny.
Turchin, by the way, is not on Lamar’s new “Damn.” Lamar went with a more stripped-down hip-hop approach this time, and listening to “Manifest Destiny” you might get a little sense of what’s missing.