Kena Anae

Hold On! Electric Songs of Protest Vol. 1

Study Group Records

What sort of revolution is Kena Anae after?  Certainly not a bloody one: this is a soul man with a disposition so sugary that he’s inclined to take political advice from a fortune cookie. Though Hold On! Electric Songs of Protest Vol. 1 lays on the slogans pretty thick, Anae is open about his feelings of powerlessness, and owns up to his bewilderment in the face of cruelty and injustice. But there’s nothing indecisive or ambivalent about the terrific jams on this set, which draw from the long New Jersey funk tradition, New Jack swing, Michael Jackson’s ‘80s hits, pop-gospel, and musical theater with extraordinary assurance. Hold On! Electric Songs of Protest Vol. 1 is the first release from Study Group Records, and it suggests strongly that the members of this Jersey nice-guy crew know what they’re doing. From the whip-crack snare sound to the danceable grooves to the squiggly synthesizers and deliciously scratchy funk guitar, everything here sounds fantastic.

The charismatic Anae is the star and the focus, though, and he carries these earnest protest numbers with a voice that radiates such optimism and faith in the efficacy of communal action that he just might convince you that healing is an inevitability. I even believe that his stated preference for monogamy is part of a spiritual path rather than mere sweet talk to charm the ladies. As is always the case with funk-pop records, Hold On! Electric Songs of Protest Vol. 1 goes on all day and indulges in repetition for the booty-shakers. But the rhythms are so tight, and Anae is such a pleasure to hear, that nothing feels belabored. Of particular interest: the church-pew stomper “I Can’t Breathe,” the glossy, beautifully sung “Lost,” a song that songs like Bruno Mars fronting the Soulquarians, and especially the pained “Cotton Sways,” a showcase for Anae’s voice at its purest.

“One day it will happen,” Anae tells us on “Do Something,” a consciousness-raising anthem that encourages bystanders to get involved in the movement. While we’re waiting for that day, Anae and Study Group are going to keep the party going. Which, as Prince might have told you, is often a revolution itself.

American Watercolor Movement

The Odyssey of Captain Vivian Ribbons

American Watercolor Movement

The exact parameters of the American Watercolor Movement have always been tricky to define. This amorphous Jersey City art rock collective has welcomed contributions from many locals, including some who haven’t rocked at all, but have instead been visual and conceptual artists caught up in the band’s expanded universe. But the main movers are the same as they’ve always been, and they’re all in top form on The Odyssey of Captain Vivian Ribbons, the group’s hourlong concept set and psychic travelogue. They include the imaginative guitarist John Fesken, whose treated six-string gives the music of the Watercolor Movement much of its aqueous quality, nebula-eyed storyteller Jason Cieradkowki, whose arch, coolly diagnostic, alien sprechesang delivery marks him as cosmopolitan in the interstellar sense, and percussionist and soundscaper Brian Wilson, whose taste for the otherworldly is put to thrilling use on this set. 

And the Maps Came Down, the band’s mesmerizing 2003 album, felt like a series of postcards from a multicultural, unmoored Europe, complete with exotic sounds coaxed from terrestrial musical instruments. The Odyssey of Captain Vivian Ribbons is a trip upward and inward rather than outward: it’s a space saga, and the title character’s blast through the blackness goes from glory to nightmare to spooky transcendence.

The sci-fi theme gives these musicians an excuse to lay on the processing and reverb, celestial choirs, machine drones and twinkling constellations of xylophone, and lots of distant (and occasionally frightening) voices from the void. This is music to play with all the lights out — a genuine head tip and a sidestep into an altered state meant to be experienced in a single sitting. Sonic experiments aside, this is also the most classic rock-influenced project that the Watercolor Movement has ever waxed, and it’s a thrill to hear the sonic allusions to Can, Tangerine Dream, “Major Tom,” “2112,” and lots and lots of Pink Floyd, including cap tips to their lesser-known Floyd sets like “Obscured by Clouds” and “A Saucerful of Secrets.”

The grandeur of the music amplifies the album’s proggy themes: alienation, mortality, illusion, the insignificance of humanity, the price of ambition. “This journey through the heavens is a voyage through hell,” we’re assured at the album’s clattering midpoint. A split second later, we’re told “look at yourself.” David Bowie let us know in 1969: there’s no horror like introspection. When you’re floating in a tin can, there’s nowhere to run. 

Are you a local musician with an album you’d like reviewed?  Send it our way — we promise to listen.

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...