Soul, Funk and Disco

Sun Ra “Disco 3000” (El Saturn, 1978)

In the last half of the ’70s, music-biz law mandated that every artist had to cut a disco record. James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, the Meters, esteemed jazz veterans like Yusef Lateef and Miroslav Vitous—it didn’t matter how established and respected you were; the industry-wide disco diktat had to be obeyed.

In 1978 while in Italy, Sun Ra and his tight quartet, the Myth Science Arkestra, paid lip service to disco (see the LP title), but as you’d expect from Herman Sonny Blount, the results here don’t at all conform to the genre’s major traits; nor are they exactly music to snort coke to, nor do they serve as preludes to getting laid. Rather, Disco 3000 is yet another anomaly in Sun Ra’s vast, strange discography. And that’s quite enough for me—and for you, too, I would wager.

On the astonishing 26-minute title track, over a chintzy rhythm-machine’s quasi-cha-cha beat, saxophonist John Gilmore and trumpeter Michael Ray blow mad, exclamatory arabesques, while Mr. Ra busts out some of his most severely warped tones on multiple keyboards and Moog synthesizer, raising plumes of alien glitter gas. All pretenses of regular meter quickly fly out the window. Throughout, Ra engineers passages of brilliant chaos, letting his insane menagerie of feral fibrillations and disorienting drones lift the piece into freeform, uncharted territory. If this is disco (it isn’t, let’s be honest), it’s a particularly Saturnine interpretation of the genre. I don’t think even renowned Italo-disco DJ Daniele Baldelli could smoothly segue “Disco 3000” into a KC & The Sunshine Band or Tantra track.

On “Third Planet” and “Friendly Galaxy,” piano, sax, drums, trumpet, and drums (played by Luqman Ali) cohere into rather conventional, bustling bop compositions. They offer respite before Ra and company head outward-bound again on “Dance Of The Cosmo-Aliens,” whose splenetic, galloping rhythm-box beats get wreathed with the sort of eerie, fairground organ motifs that haunted the Eraserhead soundtrack. The piece throbs with a manic intensity not unlike that of Killing Joke’s “Change,” oddly enough. Again, this ain’t disco as your lewd uncle Tony knows it.

On Disco 3000 in Sun Ra’s eloquent hands, space continues to be the place. And that’s quite enough for me. (Art Yard beneficently reissued Disco 3000 on vinyl in 2009.) -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

The Meters “The Meters” (Josie, 1969)

Here it is—the muthafuckin’ blueprint for a style of funk that seemingly has infinite staying power. The Meters’ debut LP is an ideal specimen of precision-tooled, just-the-brass-tacks-ma’am of New Orleans dance music, which has influenced generations of funk musicians and turned on millions of aficionados—while also providing a banquet of sampleworthy passages for hip-hop producers. Eternal thanks to Leo Nocentelli (guitar), Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste (drums) George Porter Jr. (bass), and Art Neville (keyboards) for their evergreen innovations.

On The Meters, these cool-headed gentlemen concocted a spare geometry of rhythm that always equals satisfaction where it counts: in the hips and the ears. Their concise compositions get to the point—which is a very important, rewarding point—and then efficiently move on to the next fundamental equation, which they elegantly solve, over and over again. That may sound a bit dry, but trust me, what the Meters do here is very lubricious.

The opening track, “Cissy Strut,” actually was a hit in 1969, selling 200,000 copies in two weeks, according to Wikipedia. It’s staggering to think that we once lived in a world where a stark instrumental funk cut could chart; my, how far we’ve fallen. Anyway, “Cissy Strut”—which has been sampled at least 60 times— is a seminar conducted by badass musicians casually placing every element in a song to maximize its innate funkiness. Special mention to drummer Modeliste, whose embellishments are tricky as hell while never losing the funk. Amazing four-limb dexterity!

Elsewhere, “Here Comes The Meter Man” comes off as both Southern-fried and as cool as sweet tea, with Neville’s organ a churchy swirl of carefree joy and Nocentelli’s guitar a quicksilver wonder of economy and liquid bliss. “Cardova” the epitome of the Meters’ special brand of methodical funk. You’d think something this orderly wouldn’t be interesting, but you’d be quite wrong. “Sophisticated Cissy” is more laid-back than its kissing cousin, “Cissy Strut,” and perhaps a tad funkier as a result. In my considered opinion, “Sophisticated Cissy” is summer-porch-sitting jammage par excellence. The cover of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Simple Song” slams just as hard as the original, but with fewer frills (like horns and vocals); it’s tighter than a military drum corps and infinitely more exciting.

The Meters is the purest distillation of the band’s utterly democratic, telepathic chemistry, before they kinda sorta ruined things with vocals and some ill-advised covers (Neil Young’s “Birds,” Stephen Stills’ “Love Read more›

Mustafa Özkent Ve Orkestrasi “Gençlik İle Elele” (Evren, 1973)

After much listening and thought, I have to conclude that Mustafa Özkewnt VE Orkestrasi’s Gençlik İle Elele is a perfect record, a paragon of Turkish funk. Its 10 instrumental tracks average a little over three minutes in length, but they’re so rhythmically tight and tonally and texturally fascinating, that they feel like teases. Every element here—swarming, swirling John Medeski-esque soul-jazz organ, trebly, frilly-tendrilled guitar, in-the-pocket drums, furious bongo- and conga-slapping and other hand-percussion accents—is laser-focused to get your head bobbing, your hips swiveling, and your loins flooded with do-it fluid. So, yeah… a perfect record.

This LP, as you may surmise, contains loads of chunky funk that’s ripe for sampling by enterprising hip-hop producers; it’s a veritable breakbeat orgy. But according to online authority whosampled.com, only four Mustafa Özkent tracks have been sampled. That seems low for an album of such bumpin’ bounty. Not surprisingly, Madlib’s brother Oh No used two songs from Gençlik in his own work; surprisingly, Madlib himself hasn’t plundered it… not yet, anyway.

The concision and airtight beat science displayed by Mustafa Özkent and company recall the Meters’ disciplined approach to funk. Of course, being Turkish, Mustaf Özkent sound a tad more non-Western in their melodies and timbres. (According to Andy Votel’s liner notes in the 2006 B-Music reissue, Özkent modified his guitars with extra frets to make it sound more like a saz or a lute.) And that makes a big difference with regard to the stunning impact this album makes on the Western listener. All that being said, the phenomenal bass solo on “Dolana Dolana” would make Larry Graham give two thwapping thumbs up.

Reissued again by Portland label Jackpot in 2016, Gençlik İle Elele—which means Hand In Hand With Youthshould never fall out of print, nor stray far from your DJ bag, if indeed you DJ. Hell, this record just may inspire to start working the 1s and 2s yourself… -Buckley MayfieldRead more›

Phil Upchurch “The Way I Feel” (Cadet, 1970)

ORCHESTRA ARRANGED AND CONDUCTED BY CHARLES STEPNEY” it reads under the title of The Way I Feel, and if that doesn’t sell you on this album, then I don’t know what to tell you. Because Stepney, as you should know, was a studio wizard who conjured certified magic for Rotary Connection, Minnie Riperton, Marlena Shaw, Ramsey Lewis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and other talented musicians in Chicago during the ’60s and ’70s. But, of course, there’s more to The Way I Feel than Stepney’s exceptional ideas. Phil Upchurch—who also played with Rotary Connection and several other Stepney-associated artists—is a wonderfully expressive, virtuosic guitarist and bassist who issued a grip of very good LPs in the era mentioned above, including this one. (I don’t waste my time with mediocrity, dig?)

It must be said that this album contains its share of fluff—albeit sophisticated, extremely well-played and arranged fluff. Two Gordon Lightfoot covers? Not sure that’s totally necessary. Those E-Z listenin’, airy fantasias plus Quincy Jones/Cynthia Weil’s “Time For Love (Is Any Time)” find Upchurch in restrained, contemplative mode, offering classy dinner music. Similarly, the effervescent soul pop of “Wild Wood,” buoyed by a bevy of female backing vocalists singing “Hey baby, sha la la sha la la la,” is rather lightweight compared to Upchurch’s best material.

Much better is “Peter, Peter,” an Irwin Rosman composition that Upchurch turns into serpentine psychedelia while flaunting his mercurial jamming skills and facility for shifting between phenomenal fuzz and crystalline tones. Other highlights include “I Don’t Know,” a “Willie The Pimp”-style slab of nasty blues rock, and “Pretty Blue,” a laid-back, lascivious instrumental.

But with “Electrik Head,” Upchurch perversely saves the best for last. And, whoa, holy shit! It’s a career-peak song, an effusion of translucent guitar pyrotechnics, a cascade of icy, pointillist, tonal eloquence. I’ve played this psychedelic mind-blower in many a DJ set, and will continue to do so for as long as I can. Because I like to make a room full of people stop their chatter, put down their drinks, and gawk in amazement at the Hendrix-level sorcery going on here. Because it’s one of the greatest pieces of music the 20th century has yielded. Because I’m a sonic philanthropist who wants to take you to (Up)church. -Buckley MayfieldRead more›

Urszula Dudziak “Urszula” (Arista, 1975)

Yoko Ono, Linda Sharrock, and Urszula Dudziak—behold the holy trinity of extreme female vocalists, gentle reader. The latter is the undisputed queen of Polish jazz singers, using her electronically treated five-octave range to embroider compositions that encompass a cappella fantasias, rococo fusion workouts, and spacey funk. Dudziak’s gift for improvising enchanting and unpredictable patterns with her quirky and delicate delivery turn her records into minefields of flighty frissons.

Produced by husband and renowned fusion violinist Michał Urbaniak, Urszula kicks off with “Papaya,” a ridiculously effusive disco-jazz number featuring Dudziak nimbly scatting in her upper register, which is very high, indeed. It’s almost impossible not to dance and laugh yourself silly simultaneously. “Mosquito” follows with methodical, elastically funky soul, over which Dudziak babbles like a European Sharrock on a track reminiscent of Larry Young’s Fuel. An extra boost comes from Miles Davis sideman Reggie Lucas’ guitar solo, which flares in the same extravagant zones as Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin’s. “Mosquito Dream” is a sparse, a cappella chantfest somewhere between Joan La Barbara and Diamanda Galás; it’s geared to freak you the fuck out. “Mosquito Bite” closes the insect quadrology with UD going HAM at imitating an analog synthesizer, à la Annette Peacock. Joe Caro’s scorched-earth guitar riffs propel this song into the fusion/porn-flick-score hall of fame (admittedly a narrow niche).

The second side can’t quite equal the first’s bizarre iconoclasm, but it’s still full of loopy joie de vivre, circuitous songwriting, and frou-frou fusion frolics. Special mention goes to “Funk Rings,” which belongs in the pantheon for weirdest funk tracks of all time, as Dudziak splutters rhythmically over what sounds like one of the stranger cuts off Herbie Hancock’s Man-Child (another 1975 LP reviewed recently on this blog).

Make no mistake: Urszula Dudziak is a unique talent. If you seek otherworldly beauty and unconventional vocal timbres and tricks, she’s your woman. (Check out other titles like Newborn Light and Future Talk, as well as her contributions to Urbaniak’s Inactin, for further enlightenment.) -Buckley MayfieldRead more›

ESG “ESG” (99 Records, 1981)

 

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The impact this EP had when I first heard it in 1981 was immediate and ecstatic. Made in the Bronx by the four Scroggins sisters and a conga-playing friend named Tito Libran, ESG’s eponymous debut release shot vital energy and joy into the veins of anyone with a mind attuned to fundamental, funky groove science. Music this elemental, earthy, and efficacious should be sold in health-food stores. ESG is a family affair, and it is so righteous.

The music of ESG (stands for Emerald Sapphire & Gold) succeeds through its ruthlessly stripped-down attack that privileges drums, congas, bass and vocals that seduce and sass you with equal measure. The six songs on ESG offer the purest distillation of this influential band’s sound, in which nearly every element strives to get you moving as sexily as possible. You’ve surely heard “UFO” sampled in hundreds of hip-hop and dance-pop tracks, but the funny thing about that is it’s ESG’s least conventionally danceable cut. But producers honed in on that eerie, distorted guitar whorl, surely because it’s redolent of pop culture’s idea of an alien presence. Unsurprisingly, it became the default trope for “woo woo” creepiness in clubland throughout the ’80s.

If you wanna instantly draw in a listener, you could do much worse than “You’re No Good,” a song about conflicted lust whose hip-swiveling beats seem to be tumbling down the stairs, louchely and elegantly. “Moody” conjures hyper, dubbed-out rhythmic legerdemain, with speedy congas contrasting with the trap kit’s stoic funk foundation. Singer Renee Scroggins is in peak coquettish form here. With “UFO,” ESG again forge another downward-sloping rhythm that slaloms with Renee’s guitar feedback sculpted into Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho shock-tactic strings. Deborah Scroggins’ bass line is superbly economical in its lugubrious descent, while all around it coheres into an atmosphere of piercing menace. (Note: Factory Records’ studio savant Martin Hannett produced this enchanting trio of songs, as he did Basement 5’s In Dub, which I reviewed last week—coincidence!)

The EP’s B-side consists of three live recordings that prove ESG could slay onstage, too. “Earn It” pushes a staunch work ethic lyrically while purveying the leanest, meanest Liquid Liquid-like rhythm matrix heard outside of a Liquid Liquid record, thanks in part to excellent use of claves. “ESG” boasts yet more manic claves, chants of the title, a snaky bass line, and a full-tilt beat orgy that’ll get your heart bursting. Read more›

Rip Rig + Panic “Bob Hope Takes Risks” (Virgin, 1981)

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Rip Rig + Panic should be way better known than they are. A British ensemble of wild eccentrics fronted by Don Cherry’s stepdaughter, Neneh Cherry, Rip Rig + Panic named themselves after a Rahsaan Roland Kirk album. And in their own idiosyncratic manner, they carved out as bold an artistic manifesto as the legendary blind jazzman did.

Throughout the first half of the ’80s, RR+P—whose members also played with the Pop Group, New Age Steppers, Slits, African Head Charge, and PiL—overturned the conventions of funk, soul, jazz while fusing them in unconventional ways. Although they released three sporadically brilliant full-lengths, RR+P really flourished on their EPs and singles. Case in point is this crazy 12-inch from the group’s early days. I remember when “Bob Hope Takes Risks” came out, the British weekly music mags lost their shit to it. Then when I copped it, I proceeded to do the same. It was a rare example of extravagant hype being lived up to.

The seven-minute A-side—a paean to some sort of phantasmagorical goddess—gets all your senses tingling from the get-go, with Gareth Sanger scatting and Cherry singing, “She’s got that stuff in her eyes, she’s got it, she’s got it/It’s something you never can buy, she’s got it, she’s got it!” as Sean Oliver’s tunneling bass line and Sanger’s strident string and horn arrangements give the song a strange levitation. It’s a jazz-funk juggernaut with vertiginous dynamics, animated by suspenseful violin/viola/cello motifs that wouldn’t sound out of place in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Mark Springer’s mad, quicksilver piano runs and marauding trombone and tenor saxophone create a brassy forcefield that makes you want to overthrow corrupt governments (sorry for the redundancy). It’s a scandal that this track isn’t played at every ’80s DJ night in the world. Hell, maybe heads still ain’t ready for this sort of baffling club-music surrealism.

The B-side can’t help sounding a bit anticlimactic after the ultimate show-stopper, “Bob Hope Takes Risks.” But “Hey Mr. E! A Gran Grin With A Snake Of Smile” ain’t no slouch, either. A much more overtly jazz-oriented piece, “Hey Mr. E!” recalls ethno-jazz trumpeter Don Cherry (who occasionally sat in with RR+P) at his most manic. Bruce Smith’s drums and percussion work shine, as he generates a roiling and tumbling foundation over which the rest of the band stain the stereo field with magmatic Pharoah Sanders-esque sax, snaky, Charlie Haden-like bass, and … Read more›

Terje Rypdal “Terje Rypdal” (ECM, 1971)

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With only a little glibness, one could call Terje Rypdal’s second LP as a leader a Scandinavian counterpart to the best electric-era Miles Davis output (On The Corner, Get Up With It, A Tribute To Jack Johnson) And it’s not just me who thinks this. A sage critic at the British magazine Melody Maker suggested that Miles should’ve tapped the Norwegian guitarist to replace the departing John McLaughlin from his band; alas, that never happened, and we are all the poorer for its non-occurrence. Regardless, Rypdal went on to cut some fantastic records with Germany’s revered ECM label, including this phenomenal sophomore effort.

I first heard Terje Rypdal on Kinski guitarist Chris Martin’s KBCS Ampbuzz show in the mid ’00s. Martin played the album’s lead-off track, “Keep It Like That—Tight,” and I was instantly mesmerized. That cut is a highlight, for sure. Rypdal keeps it sparse and suspenseful over its 12 minutes, using wah-wah to accentuate his contemplative guitar epiphanies while the bass and drums form a Cubist strain of funk that’s akin to On The Corner‘s, except much more introverted and subdued. When Jan Garbarek’s saxophone enters the fray, it adds an element of mellifluous hysteria. Near the end, Rypdal jams out a serpentine, Larry Coryell-esque solo that raises the temperature in the room by 20 degrees.

The album then downshifts over the next three tracks, delving into what could be called “chamber-jazz ambient.” “Rainbow” is a beautiful, string-powered sigh that’s tinctured with tantalizing bells while “Lontano II” becomes a slowly revolving vortex of delayed guitar and bass, generating an austere and ominous feeling. The LP’s longest song, the nearly 16-minute “Electric Fantasy,” features the distressingly angelic chants of Inger Lise Rypdal, which cast a spellbinding chill over an space-jazz meditation that anticipates the forlorn atmospheres of Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly” while also foreshadowing Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack. Rypdal’s crystalline calligraphy and excoriating eruptions à la Lard Free’s Xavier Bauilleret spar with Bobo Stenson’s electric-piano sparkles and Eckehard Fintl’s gorgeous, melancholic oboe lines. A multitude of amazing, intricate gestures pile up in this masterpiece, taking you on a journey to seldom-sojourned realms. “Tough Enough” ends Terje Rypdal with an unexpected deconstruction of early Fleetwood Mac-style blues-rock, before transitioning into a casual homage to Miles’ Tribute To Jack Johnson. Keep ’em guessing, Terje!

For many listeners (including this one), Terje Rypdal represents the peak of … Read more›

Swamp Dogg “Total Destruction To Your Mind” (Canyon, 1970)

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(Little) Jerry Williams is one of those stalwart R&B/soul songwriters/performers who had some modest success in the ’50s and ’60s with solid but fairly conventional tunes. And then in the late ’60s our hero ingested some LSD, the ’70s commenced, and Williams became Swamp Dogg and took his music into much more eccentric and interesting territory. His debut full-length under that alias announced the arrival of a soul maverick. Total Destruction To Your Mind is a righteous cult classic that’s aged shockingly well.

The record peaks early with the dynamite 1-2 spiked punch of the title track and “Synthetic World.” The former’s an unstoppable burbling funk party jam fueled by liquid wah-wah guitar, bold horn flourishes, and Williams psychedelic-soul vocals redolent of Otis Redding’s Southern-fried throatiness. The latter’s laid-back funk with a country-folk lilt in the swampy (yes!) vein of Tony Joe White.

The two Joe South covers are fab, because Joe South was unfuckwithable in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Williams tackles “Redneck,” a sarcastic dig at bigoted white guys, and he really sinks his fangs into South’s good-ol’-boy chug with rollicking piano and horns that want to get you drunk. “These Are Not My People” is funky folk boasting a vibrant, catchy-as-hell melody; this song should’ve been a hit for both the composer and for Mr. Dogg.

A couple of other highlights: “If I Die Tomorrow (I’ve Lived Tonight)” brings more Redding-style testifying, just oozing real-shit emotion while “Sal-A-Faster” offers lean, menacing funk akin to Whitfield-Strong’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (think the Temptations’ version). And “I Was Born Blue” proves that Williams could render a heart-shattering ballad with one of the greatest key changes in soul music. It’s pathos overload, not unlike that in the Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke.” It gave my throat lump goose bumps.

Alive Records reissued Total Destruction To Your Mind in 2013, doing the world a humanitarian service that you’d do well to not let go to waste. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

Herbie Hancock “Man-Child” (Columbia, 1975)

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Jazz-fusion keyboardist/composer Herbie Hancock has had so many phases and so many different flavors of peaks over the last 55 years. (Said Capt. Obvious.) But one stunning LP that tends to get overlooked is Man-Child, which came shortly after his expansive Mwandishi band excursions as well as the astonishing avant-fusion trilogy of Sextant, Head Hunters, and Thrust and before his shockingly futuristic 1983 hit, “Rockit.”

With a triumvirate of drummers (James Gadson, Harvey Mason, and Mike Clark) on Man-Child that would make James Brown and George Clinton envious, Hancock embarked on a journey that was not maiden at all. Rather, it was among the most lethal displays of groove science this multifaceted musician ever laid down—perhaps only trailing Head Hunters and Thrust in his sprawling discography.

“Hang Up Your Hang Ups” starts Man-Child in striking fashion, with Paul Jackson’s absurdly elastic bass line leading into a five-dimensional funk conflagration with exultant horns and a frantic keyboard/guitar tussle. Hancock and company lay down grooves upon grooves, building up a contrapuntal party jam of extreme busyness and complexity. Note that Janet Jackson and N.W.A.—among others—have sampled this.

“Sun Touch” and “Bubbles” are leisurely fusion fantasias that are as substantial as sea spray and just as refreshing, if at times flirting too closely with dinner-jazz innocuousness. The former finds Hancock tickling out rapid curlicues on Arp Odyssey, which really redeems things, while in the latter, Melvin “Wah Wah” Watson bestows a glittering galaxy of guitar ejaculations over a lubricious, luxurious rhythm while Hancock conjures celestial strings with his expensive battery of synthesizers.

On “The Traitor” and “Heartbeat,” Herbie and the boys finesse some slippery, seductive funk with stalwart, strutting bass lines and Hancock getting maniacally intricate on his synths. These tracks bear a mad intensity not unlike that heard on the best Passport records. Probably my favorite piece on the album is “Steppin’ In It,” a sideways self-homage to Head Hunters‘ “Chameleon.” This is bulbous, bass-heavy funk that makes your bell-bottoms grow mutton chops; it’s like Sly & The Family Stone without the vocal acrobatics. What I mean to say is, “Steppin’ In It” deserves to be enshrined in the Funk Hall Of Fame—which is under construction now, right?—with the heaviest of the heavy.

When it comes to manifesting the funk, Hancock’s crew are playing 3D chess while most straight-up funk bands are playing checkers. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›

Osmonds “The Plan” (MGM, 1973)

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Write off the Osmonds at your own peril. Sure, they’re easy laughingstocks: a family of squeaky-clean Mormons trying to come off as the Caucasian Jackson 5. But these clean-cut brothers had oodles of talent and big budgets boosting their blatantly commercial vision. Throughout the ’70s, they excelled at bubblegum pop, glam, soul, funk, disco, and even a glossy strain of metal on “Crazy Horses.” Stop snickering and spring for a few of their early-’70s LPs for proof… while they’re still cheap.

Where were we? Oh, yes, The Plan. It’s universally considered the Osmonds’ most ambitious work: a concept album about the Mormon faith (Google it), written by Merrill and Wayne, and produced by Alan. Now, nobody’s more leery of overblown songs devoted to imaginary deities than your reviewer. But I’m gonna try to set aside my agnostic biases and judge this opus on a purely sonic basis. And on that level, The Plan mostly succeeds.

(Will it convert you into a Mormon? I sure hope not, but you’ve been known to do stupider things. Oh yes you have.)

Let’s get the stinkers out of the way first. “Before The Beginning” is a Vegas-y, oh-so-earnest ballad with that most annoying of balladic tropes: a crying baby. The tender as fuck orchestral ballad “Darlin’” liberally ladles on the syrup while “Are You Up There?” comes off as bombastic as anything on Aphrodite’s Child’s 666, but it’s not nearly as sublime. Slightly better is “Let Me In,” a dashing slice of ELO-ish orchestral pop that the Avalanches sampled on Since I Left You. It’s very accomplished schmaltz that reached #36 on the Billboard chart.

A couple of tunes reveal that Osmonds can do heavy rock better than most Mormons you may know. On “Traffic In My Mind,” they take a quasi-freaky stab at Deep Purple or Grand Funk Railroad gnarliness. “The Last Days” finds the Osmonds trying to sound ominous but not really convincing you that they can summon aural Armageddon. Still, it’s a valiant attempt, and the main riff would make Iron Butterfly nod in respect.

The two best cuts—“Mirror, Mirror” and “One Way Ticket To Anywhere”—are very good, indeed. The former’s an oddly metered romp animated by jittery skeins of harmonica and jaw harp while the latter’s as super-charged as Sweet’s “The Ballroom Blitz” and the Beatles’ “Back In The U.S.S.R.” “One Way Ticket” soars and dazzles like … Read more›

War “The World Is A Ghetto” (United Artists, 1972)

 

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I’m not in the habit of reviewing records that have dwelled on the charts (it went to #1 and was Billboard magazine’s album of the year, selling more copies than anything else in 1973), but War’s The World Is A Ghetto ain’t your typical platinum LP. Sure, smash single “The Cisco Kid” greatly helped its ascension, but when you get beyond that feel-good, heavy-lidded funk shuffle, things get dark, psychedelic, and real as shit.

On this, their fifth full-length, War were really hitting their stride. The large LA ensemble had proved they excelled at funk, rock, Latin, R&B, calypso, and fusions thereof—with and without ex-Animals vocalist Eric Burdon. Their music was geared for outdoor parties and radiated a bonhomie that you sensed aspired to unite racial and social groups—even on ostensibly ominous cuts like surprise radio staple “Slippin’ Into Darkness.”

Still, some critics have lamented the extended length of songs like “City, Country, City,” “Four Cornered Room,” and the title track, but fug these short-attention-spanned busters. If concise songs are more your speed, though, you’ll love the aforementioned “Cisco Kid” and “Where Was You At.” The latter’s a brisk, clipped funk number with gospel call-and-response vocals, with its irresistible groove toggling between tough and breezy. The sub-4-minute “Beetles In The Bog” is one of those let’s-end-the-album-on-a-rousing-note songs, powered by massed “la la la”s, a nimble, strutting bass line, and a martial rhythm.

But the real nitty-gritty of The World Is A Ghetto occurs on its longest tracks. “City, Country, City” is a 13-minute instrumental that vacillates between passages resembling Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and bustling, urban jazz-funk that nearly beats Kool & The Gang at their own game. War seriously stretch out and build up a humid head of steam here. A midnight-blue ballad, “The World Is A Ghetto” is suffused with a sublime malaise over its 10-minute duration, but it possesses enough gumption to keep its chin up in the struggle to survive, despite the pervasive gloom of the song’s sentiment.

With “Four Cornered Room,” Ghetto hits a shocking peak. It starts with one of the starkest, most menacing blues-rock riffs to which you’ve ever trembled (oddly, you can hear its influence in the later work of Seattle drone-metal deities Earth). The massed “ooh”s and “zoom zoom zoom”s add layers of chillingness to the song, while the phased and panned guitar and percussion disperse things into a psychedelic zone Read more›