Sunday, February 10, 2013

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I’m New Here is a shock. It’s a wallop filled with big nasty beats, a wide range of sonic atmospheres, and more -- sometimes unintentional -- autobiographical intimacy than we’ve heard from Gil Scott-Heronthan ever before. Produced by XL Recordings head Richard RussellI’m New Here is his first record in 16 years. It is a scant 28 minutes and doesn’t need to be a second longer. It's unlike anything he’s previously recorded, though there is metaphoric precedence in his earliest, largely spoken word albums. Its production pushes forcefully at the margins, and Scott-Heron embraces it without a hint of nostalgia. It opens with “On Coming from a Broken Home,” the first of a two-part poem that bookends the album. Over a piano and a sampled string loop (from Kanye West's “Flashing Lights”), he reflects on his upbringing filled with strong female figures and an unconventional structure, with a startling epiphany at the end. It segues immediately into a slamming read of Robert Johnson's “Me and the Devil,” with enormous hip-hop drums, sampled strings, and sonic effects that create a sense of brooding menace asScott-Heron wails with bracing rawness to hair-raising effect. Just as quickly, the album shifts dramatically. A lone acoustic guitar introduces the Bill Callahan-penned title track. Scott-Heron recites the verse but sings its refrain: “No matter how far wrong gone/You can always turn around.” It feels like he’s speaking into a mirror with a dawning awareness of who -- and what -- he's become as he accepts it. He now owns this song. A Burial-like wall of effects over a cello loop introduces “Your Soul and Mine.” It’s Scott-Heron's unflinching look at death, and the way it feeds, yet ends with a warrior’s words: "So if you see the vulture coming/Flying circles in your mind/Remember there is no escaping/For he will follow close behind/Only promise me a battle/For your soul, and mine." It’s not all darkness, however. A reading of Bobby "Blue" Bland's “I’ll Take Care of You,” features Gil's soulful piano with a small string section. He sings it tenderly, in a now-raspier but still deeply expressive voice; it stands out sonically, but belongs here because of its intimacy. “New York Is Killing Me,” based on a John Lee Hooker blues, has been reinvented with almost entirely new lyrics and arrangement. Singers from the Harlem Gospel Choir; handclaps, bass drums, cymbals, synths, and guitar are treated spatially by RussellScott-Heron's lead vocal roars from the center. “The Crutch” is a burning atmospheric poem about a junkie’s life. Scott-Heron doesn’t distance himself from his subject; it isn’t mere observation, but an empathic elegy, andRussell’s suffocatingly close production brings it home. Forty years after his debut, I’m New Herecontains the artful immediacy that distinguishes Scott-Heron’s best art. The modern production adds immeasurably to that quality, underscores his continued relevance in reflecting the times, and opens his work to a new generation of listeners while giving older ones a righteous jolt.


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