Journeying with The Roots

20:57, Dec 18 2011

I was listening to Undun over the weekend. My first few listens to the latest album by The Roots. I'd heard a few tracks from it already, but the weekend was my first chance to hear the album in its entirety. Just as I'm being asked to draw up lists of my favourite albums of 2011 - a year that has seen some great albums released; many of my favourites I have already singled out and written about in posts here but I will be compiling a list for Blog on the Tracks - and now, in the last weeks of 2011 I have this new album by The Roots. Most definitely a contender.

The Roots, from Philadelphia, formed in 1987 and have gone under a few versions of the name - The Square Roots, The Legendary Roots Crew - but are best known as The Roots. There's a whole audience now that know this group as the house-band for the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show - not so much in New Zealand, most likely, since we don't get the TV show here. Though there are plenty of YouTube clips showing the band backing musical guests, performing music-based skits and providing all of the musical colour that a house-band is asked to do on a late-night chat show.

Many fans worried with the announcement, in 2009, that this hard-working, regularly touring band was to become a TV act; would there be any more Roots gigs outside of the TV slot? Would they even get to make records?

Well it's been a very busy period - and this band is (somehow) getting better with every release.

I loved 2010's How I Got Over (you can click here for my review) and that year the band also supported John Legend to make this mostly decent record. The John Legend album suffered in places because John Legend is only ever going to be remembered as a guy who wanted to be the new Donny Hathaway and could pull off a half-pie acceptable Bill Withers-type sound. But the musical support from The Roots was fine; great in fact.

And now we have Undun - a concept album that runs in at less than 40 minutes. If you really want to get heavy with the concept (and The Roots do give you that option with a smartphone app that carries on the story and provides background away from the album-listening experience) then you can explore this world. The band is calling it a soundtrack without the actual movie. A decent tag-line and one that actually works as well as sounding reasonably clever.

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I'm only a couple of listens in to the complete album. So I know it's a life-story in snapshots. The character in the album dies - we know this because the album starts with a flat line. We find out details from there, flashbacks, other fictional characters telling their perspective, reflecting on this life lost; the bad choices made.

But I was struck, instantly, with the joy of another new Roots album, another new direction. That was enough to hook me. The story will unfold - but knowing and following the concept is not crucial to my understanding/enjoyment of the music. I feel (so far) that Undun is an album that works outside and away from being a concept album. The theme, the flow, the feel of the album might all be enhanced by the concept/story on repeat listens. But it's not a daunting, pretentious, overwrought buzz-kill. (The way so many concept albums ultimately are.)

What I got from Undun straight away - and I mean immediately - is the journey, this being another step, another path for The Roots. Another starting point. And simply the continuation.

This band definitely made a big part of its name - in terms of interest and acceptance - on the back of the gimmick that this was a hip-hop group that played live instruments. That was a good hook, people definitely caught on. The Roots were not the first to do it, they won't be the last but they might be the finest. And for them to really mean anything they had to transcend the gimmick, move beyond just being a "hip-hop band but with live instruments". And they've done that. Now they do it with every album, with every performance. Time and again.

I first caught on to The Roots with the Jay-Z Unplugged album in 2001. The Roots served as the backing band and knocked it out of the park, replicating the samples, effortlessly switching gears. That sent me straight to 1999's Things Fall Apart which I loved from the first listen. So then Phrenology arrived almost immediately after. I was already a fan - and this album certainly made a splash thanks to their recut of Cody Chesnutt's The Seed (2.0).

Excited by the band's work on the Jay-Z album and across Things Fall Apart and Phrenology I went back to 1995's Do You Want More?!!!??! And 1996's Illadelph Halflife. I've since collected everything the band has released - and seen the two Wellington shows.

Live, The Roots is a whole new (different) experience. I've seen them play covers of Led Zeppelin and Beyonce; I've heard them channel Prince and Parliament, Frank Zappa and Funkadelic. I firmly believe you could go to a Roots gig with no knowledge of what this band is about and love every minute of it. I've seen them when they were touring behind a brand new album and they only played one cut from it. They went deep with 1960s Motown styles and in a half-step they can move from disco-funk or reggae grooves to extreme noise/metal, classic rock covers and all points between.

I'm particularly interested in the albums from 2004's Tipping Point onwards. Every two years (Game Theory in 2006, Rising Down in 2008, How I Got Over last year) the band has reassessed its version of funk, soul, R'n'B, blues, pop and rock. Theirs is a future-funk sound, pared back and informed/inspired by hip-hop but this is no longer a live-instrument rap-band. They can be exactly that if they want to - and if you want to still hear that - but now the band is making its own sound.

You know that they have lived inside moments from Sly & The Family Stone's albums Life and Stand! and There's a Riot Goin' On; in Marvin Gaye's What's Going On; in Funkadelic's Maggot Brain. But they've tunnelled out a new area to explore that is informed by all of this and so much more.

In Questlove the band has a DJ, producer, songwriter, arranger, bandleader and (superb) drummer who sets so much of the tone. Every component to this band is necessary. Every instrumentalist is incredible - but it's now such a well oiled machine that the real vitality is in the band as exactly that: a band. A group on a journey.

I thank them for the journey they've taken us on so far - and I'll follow them wherever they go. (There's also a new Betty Wright album - her "comeback album" - that The Roots played and produced this year. I'm yet to hear that. But it's on my list.)

The Roots have been consistent but constantly innovating over the last decade - the foundation was laid the decade before that. I think on the day they're the best band in the world. As much as you can award such a title to one band only.

What do you think? Do you love the journey of The Roots? Are you excited by their music? Are you a fan? What do you think of the band's albums - particularly the last five? And if you've listened to a few of the band's albums and been disappointed, what was it that didn't sit well with you?

And have you heard Undun? Do you agree it's likely to make it to many of the end-of-year best-of lists? What do you like - or not like - about Undun?

And, like me, will you be following The Roots as long as the journey continues? (And long may it continue.)

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