When the Minneapolis sound hit the unsuspecting world as the end of the ‘70s transitioned to the early ‘80s, there was a certain amount of befuddlement that such a profoundly funky sound could emanate from the frozen reaches of the far north. Indeed, Minneapolis, at the time, was a place famed more for its rock music and its northern European descendants, than its housequaking bass and love of “the one.”
Yet from this unlikely source sprang an epochal movement that bestrode the globe and spawned a wealth of artists—all indebted to a maelstrom of influences heard via sources such as the radio station KQRS—to concoct a uniquely heady brew. Among those was André Cymone, the childhood friend of Prince and his earliest bandmate, who released a series of three albums between 1982 and 1985 that ably demonstrated that very sound.
Following a prolonged absence, during which he had both a personal and professional relationship with Jody Watley and wrote for many others, he emerged reborn a singer-songwriter with something to say about the state of the world today with 2014’s The Stone. The Black Man in America EP (whose title says it all) sprang up last year and paved the way for his new album 1969, which arrives stateside this week.
Unsurprisingly, given the stage of his career and the premature passing of his childhood friend, it’s an album that finds him in reflective mood. Just as we, given half the chance, each grow old wishing to send messages back to our younger selves, so here Cymone sends a handful of warnings. Warnings about the pitfalls of fame, the evils of money, and the depressingly ever present perils of being a black man in American society. Nevertheless, Cymone remains dedicated to showing the listener a good time, which comes courtesy of a refreshingly straight-forward blues-rock swagger, devoid of bells, whistles or complications. This is an album that is testament to—and a reminder of—the power of a man with a guitar in his hand and a song in his heart. No pretense, no frippery and no bullshit.
Album opener “We All Need Somethin'” is a strident rock and roller driven by chugging, crunching riffs and a certain relaxed, world-weary vocal delivery and it begins the album as it means to go on. The fundamentals of the blues-rock handbook are all in place—the searing lead guitar lines, the fuzztone feedback buzzing busily and the odd stab of organ swirling in the mix. All is present and correct.
A few tracks (“Breathin’ Out, Breathin’ In,” “Point And Click” and “It Ain’t Much”) settle into a comfortable groove, but don’t light the blue touch paper, suggesting that a little something more unexpected would go a long way at times. Yet others linger longer: the swampy “Already There” rumbles, the more sedentary paced swagger of “It’s Rock and Roll Man” is a good fit for the subject matter, and the sunny disposition of “California Way” soon turns to cautionary tale.
The two supreme highlights emerge when he turns his attention to addressing the ills of contemporary American life. “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Man In America” cover the gamut of frustration, anger and injustice in such straightforward terms that it is impossible not to be moved. Delivered in a raspy, cracked falsetto, “Black Lives Matter” seeks answers: “We only want what’s right,” before arriving at an optimism that lights the way to salvation: “I can see the light.”
“Black Man In America” blazes comet-like, illuminating everything in the glow of a chanted chorus that could carry a thousand placards, pulling no punches lyrically and couching the problem in no uncertain terms: “If you ain’t white then you wanna die.” It’s the duality of US citizenship writ large.
To be fair, there is nothing revolutionary on show here while the template is followed. But once the formula of the blues-rock is replaced by something more emotive, it showcases a man at ease with his place in this world and ready to raise hell for the right cause. And if ever our world needed more of this, it’s right now. More power to him.
Notable Tracks: “Black Lives Matter” | “Black Man In America” | “We All Need Something”