I'm New Here
Performer: Gil Scott-Heron
Engineer: Lawson White; Rodaidh McDonald...
Producer: Richard Russell...
Distributor: Alternative Dis. Alliance
Notes: Personnel: Gil Scott-Heron (vocals, piano). Audio Mixers: Lawson White; Rodaidh McDonald. Recording information: Clinton Studios, NY; Looking Glass Studios, NY; XL Studios, London. Photographer: Mischa Richter. 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-Heron than ever before. Produced by XL Recordings head Richard Russell, I'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 as Scott-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 Russell; Scott-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, and Russell's suffocatingly close production brings it home. Forty years after his debut, I'm New Here contains 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. [XL is also offering a limited editon of 300 copies with seven bonus tracks. These include unreleased material from the album's sessions, as well as new versions of "Winter In America" and "Home Is Where The Hatred Is."] ~ Thom Jurek
Rolling Stone (p.60) - 3 stars out of 5 -- "It's a steely blues record at heart -- the sound of a damaged man staring in the mirror without self-pity but not without hope." Spin (p.88) - "[A] testament to spiritual resilience....He sounds both worldly-wise and reborn." Billboard - "Rhythmic slam delivery over a minimalist industrial beat weaves a gray tapestry of life on 'Your Soul and Mine,' and 'On Coming From a Broken Home' is a touching tribute..." Mojo (Publisher) (p.53) - Ranked #29 in Mojo's "The 50 Best Albums Of 2010" -- "I'M NEW HERE is hard, real and vital." Paste (magazine) (p.60) - "The album sounds heavy and elusive, like a field recording, and it will surely be studied with the most powerful of cultural microscopes..." Uncut (magazine) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[A]s a radical overhaul of a career, it's a brave, brilliant and highly personal statement." Uncut (magazine) (p.34) - Ranked #16 in Uncut's "The 50 Best Albums of 2010" -- "[I]t was the weathered monologues that resonated most."
Gil Scott-Heron is universally regarded as one of the founding fathers of rap for his combination of socially conscious poetry delivered over simple, percolating musical backdrops. He started out in the early 1970s using little more than voice and percussion, but soon graduated to a much more sophisticated, jazzy style incorporating full-band arrangements. He is also a poet and novelist, whose depictions of modern urban life share much with his political-critique lyrics. Ironically, the man who articulated the traps of the ghetto, including substance abuse, became a drug addict for whom his habit and subsequent jail time effectively derailed his brilliant career.
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