White Jesus Black Problems
4 out of 5 stars
What’s this then?
A 41-minute socio-political “visual album” (every track has an associated video) song cycle by a guy who has won three Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy Awards but includes virtually no blues on this one? Bring it on.
Xavier Dphrepaulezz (aka Fantastic Negrito) is a lot of things, but predictable is not one of them. While Negrito has always pushed his interpretation of the blues genre, where he seems to be most heartily embraced, album number five finds him crafting a musical and thematic groove that thrusts his music further from anything even the most contemporary blues encompasses.
Existing fans won’t be surprised since Negrito’s non-traditional attack has typically been difficult to categorize. Still, this set, which can best be described as a combination of Frank Zappa and Prince, is not for the squeamish. Add the often experimental, if rather cut-rate, visuals for a head-spinning, politically astute, at times avant-garde project that those who won’t warm up to the music will appreciate as a wildly erratic, occasionally volatile trip few other artists, let alone ones associated with blues, would attempt. Between the whizzing audio and crazed video, it’s safe to assume few have seen or heard much like it.
Just one look at the title and it’s clear this isn’t meant as easy listening. The tunes are based on Negrito’s seventh-generation removed ancestors; a white Scottish indentured servant living in a common-law marriage with an African American slave in 1750s Virginia. This was, not surprisingly, against the law at the time and a radical situation that exhibited incredible bravery on the part of the participants. How much of that is clear in the lyrics is questionable, but songs such as “You Don’t Belong Here,” “You Better Have a Gun,” and “Register of Free Negros” indicate what you’re in for.
From the opening, almost ELO meets gospel space rock, of “Venomous Dogma” with its orchestrated Beatle-esque lope to the closing laid back swamp soul with a churchy chant I know that one day I’m sure that freedom will come as a slide guitar slithers like reptiles in a bog, this is quite a trip just as an audio experience. Add the vivid, often strange visuals, for a more intense mind-expansion.
Echoes of Sly & the Family Stone in the opening riff of “Nibbadip” shift into a finger-snapping soulful slice of ’60s pop. And “Trudoo” takes us into a frantic rock with a chorus of You ever find yourself drowning in a river/Wanting to get out? backward tapes and a trippy Motown vibe. There’s some doo-wop in the vocal acrobatics of “In My Head” before it morphs into several Prince-isms, then transforms to rugged James Brown funk.
Negrito’s malleable voice varies from falsetto to gruff yet remains expressive and committed. But the raucous, jittery energy exploding out of the grooves keeps the approach as taut as a circus high-wire act and just as nail-biting.
If this all sounds like a lot to absorb, it is. Between keeping the story straight and hanging on as the music whiplashes around like a frantic amusement park ride, it’s a complex and cheeky work. The songs spin through multiple stylistic detours with unusual ease, each more interesting than the one preceding it.
I keep moving on, he sings on the pulsating gospel-tinged rock of “Man with No Name.” That can also be Fantastic Negrito’s motto as he zips past previous genre assumptions, ripping up any blueprint for how a blues album should sound on this daring and audacious release.