Soul, Funk and Disco

Chicago “Chicago VI” (Columbia, 1973)

If you were conscious during the ’70s, you couldn’t help being aware of the music made by the unimaginatively named band Chicago. It was in the air like perfume and cigarette smoke and summer breezes, dominating the airwaves with soulful, jazz-inflected rock and heart-melting ballads. Some of those ubiquitous hits were damned good, some tilted the schmaltz meter into the red. But it was all impeccably played and produced and usually housed in gatefold sleeves, and it somehow appealed to hip folks and squares.

By the time the seven dudes in Chicago had reached their fifth album, VI (odd, I know, but they were called Chicago Transit Authority on their first LP), they were surefire chart-dwellers who had their shit down pat. But they weren’t averse to bringing in some outside help for this one, tapping Brazilian percussionist Laudir De Oliveira (Sérgio Mendes, Marcos Valle) to accentuate the rhythms. The results on VI, though, are a mixed bag, which you can expect when you have four songwriters angling to get ideas expressed.

The album begins unpromisingly with “Critics’ Choice,” an acerbic, Elton John/10cc-like ballad that dissects said critics’ negative traits. But that meh start quickly gets whisked down the memory hole as “Just You ‘N’ Me” enters earshot. Yes, it’s a warm power ballad you’ve heard 18 million times, so it’s curdled into an innocuous bauble that reminds you more of shopping for deodorant in a chain drugstore rather than as one of the classiest, slinkiest, and most earnest love songs ever to top a chart. It helps that composer/trombonist James Pankow pulls a “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” sucker punch that elevates the track to a much higher level.

Keyboardist Robert Lamm’s “Darlin’ Dear” is horn-heavy funk-rock with a festive, Dr. John-like air, enlivened by Terry Kath’s sizzling, snarling guitar solo. Kath’s lone writing credit, “Jenny,” sounds like the Band’s earthy roots rock, but with more rhythmic complexity. The album’s best deep cut is Pankow’s “What’s This World Comin’ To,” whose boisterous, busy funk rock bumps somewhere between Funkadelic and Grand Funk Railroad. I wish Chicago explored this vein more often. Similarly deep and not oversaturated by radio, “Rediscovery” is a midtempo funk jam with low-key jazz chordings, as Kath channels Eddie Hazel’s fluid, wah-wah squawk.

Like a lot of smart groups, Chicago saved the best for last. No exaggeration: Peter Cetera and Pankow’s “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day” stands as one of the greatest pieces of music ever. This magnum opus has about five or six distinct parts, and each one is dazzling. The song begins like a fairly typical inspirational, casually strolling rocker, but you can sense it’s going to build to something much more majestic. Sure enough, about halfway in, “Feelin’ Stronger” accelerates into a magnificent chug and then things just get insanely sublime from there on out. The massed, swaggering horns, the crazed, galloping drums and mad tom-tom fills, the “YEAH YEAH YEEEEAAAAH,” the soaring backing-vocal vortex, Cetera’s aerated “We get stronger today” refrain that rides till the fadeout… Put the coda on in a loop in your brain while running and you’ll never fail to break your personal record. Trust me… I’ve tried it. -Buckley Mayfield

Grand Funk Railroad “E Pluribus Funk” (Capitol, 1971)

E Pluribus Funk is probably the greatest album ever to be packaged to look like a silver coin. Admittedly, there’s not a lot of competition for that honor, but still… respect is due. Speaking of which, Flint, Michigan’s finest never have received much of that stuff from critics, but Grand Funk Railroad’s extravagant commercial success (multi-platinum records, hit singles, selling out Shea Stadium in 72 hours, etc.) shouldn’t detract from you enjoying their genuine strengths.

Produced by Terry Knight, E Pluribus Funk is an unabashed par-tay record. Being as it’s made by dudes from the central part of a centrally located Rust Belt state, the album pummels with a ferocity that comes from folks who have to endure six months of shitty weather per year. (As a native Detroiter, I speak from bitter experience.) Whatever was fueling drummer/vocalist Don Brewer, guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Mark Farner, and bassist Mel Schacher in 1971, it was pretty potent.

Opening tracks don’t get much better than “Footstompin’ Music.” This uptempo boogie bomb does what it says on the tin, pretty much running head-to-head with the Bohannon funk burner of the same title. Put this on at a party and watch rivalry turn into revelry. “People, Let’s Stop The War” is tough-as-hell funk-rock that wouldn’t sound out of place on the crucial Chains And Black Exhaust compilation of black psychedelia. The sentiment—see the title—may be simple-minded, but it was righteously on point during the Vietnam conflict. “Upsetter” is burly, uproarious party rock that’s very clever with maracas (no, it doesn’t sound like Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire”), while “I Come Tumblin’” peddles rugged, churning rock that’ll whip you into a sweaty frenzy, if you’re open to its rude, thrusting nature.

That’s a hell of a side 1, so side 2 can’t help seeming a bit lacking in comparison. The best thing I can say about the middling hard rock of “Save The Land” is that it must’ve burned a lot of calories during the recording of it. For better for worse, the bombastic hard rock of “No Lies” sounds like a blueprint for Guns N’ Roses circa Appetite For Destruction. The LP ends with “Loneliness,” a pensive, strings-augmented ballad that sometimes tilts into bloated melodrama as it strives for a momentous climax. Nevertheless, it’s a bold tangent in this context and is pretty ambitious for GFR.

Given its fantastic, circular packaging and dynamite first side, E Pluribus Funk merits space on your shelf. File it next to Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. -Buckley Mayfield

Dick Hyman “The Age Of Electronicus” (Command, 1969)

Even some of the best Moog albums have a fair amount of cheesy camp elements littering them, and Dick Hyman’s The Age Of Electronicus is no different. While Robert Moog’s invention tends to time-stamp music with as much finality as Auto-Tune has done in this century’s first two decades, some of the former material has endured beyond cheap nostalgia thrills. And that includes this cover-heavy opus.

Now a spry 92, Hyman was 42 when Electronicus came out, and he’d established himself as a jazz pianist who once played with Charlie Parker. Dick also was the in-studio organist for the stunt game show Beat The Clock, which sounds like a very fun gig. So, dude has chops. He applied his dexterity and ingenuity to the then-novel Moog synthesizer with both virtuosity and opportunistic glee.

Electronicus boasts the obligatory Beatles covers (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Blackbird”), two Booker T. & The M.G.’s cuts (“Time Is Tight” and “Green Onions”), Hair show-stopper “Aquarius,” an interpretation of James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose,” a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and merely one original. Sure, Electronicus smacks of Moog-hysteria cash-in, but Hyman’s inventiveness with this familiar and relatively eclectic material raises the record high above most of its counterparts now moldering in bargain bins.

The album starts with one of the Beatles’ most insufferable tunes, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and Hyman squirts chintzy Moog sauce all over the gratingly ingratiating dud. Thankfully, this poor start’s obliterated by the über-funky “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose,” which has more freaky libidinousness than you’d expect from suit-and-tie-wearing, middle-aged white guy who likes to twiddle nobs. Yeah, I’ll still drop this heater into DJ sets. “Blackbird”’s solemn beauty survives Hyman’s wonky timbres and insistent, synthetic pulsations—barely. I bet McCartney dug it.

“Aquarius” is “Aquarius”; it’s hard not to smirk when any version of it is playing. Hair-raising it isn’t. However, “Time Is Tight” and “Green Onions” strut with alpha-male bravado while flaunting extremely flute-y tonalities. Hyman finds a quite annoying setting on the Moog for the folk standard “Both Sides Now,” so I usually skip over it. The sentimental Bacharach-David movie theme “Alfie” fares a bit better, but is still inconsequential. However, the lone Hyman composition, “Kolumbo,” is an epic excursion into complex, swarming oscillations and delayed percussion. It’s by far Electronicus‘ most serious and psychedelic effort. I wish Hyman would’ve unknotted his tie and frolicked in this direction more often.

One good thing about Electronicus: It hasn’t become a hipster totem nor received a fashionable deluxe reissue, so you can still find used vinyl copies for under $10… for now. -Buckley Mayfield

Cabaret Voltaire “Eight Crepuscule Tracks” (Interior, 1987)

If you’re looking for a relatively easy, affordable way to get into Cabaret Voltaire, you should check out the Eight Crepuscule Tracks compilation. Gathering cuts from the English electronic group’s fecund 1981-1983 phase, this collection spotlights Cab Volt’s inventive industrial electro excursions. Think Throbbing Gristle, but with more danceable grooves and a greater propensity to sample American evangelists and menacing authority figures.

Composed of Richard H Kirk (who went on to a prolific solo career as a techno maverick), Stephen Mallinder (creator of the excellent 1982 LP Pow-Wow), and Chris Watson (who became a renowned field recordist), Sheffield’s Cabaret Voltaire began in the mid ’70s as experimental synthesists and collagists whose esoteric explorations you can hear on the 3xCD Methodology box set. By the time we get to the material on Eight Crepuscule Tracks, Cab Volt had morphed into a sinister outfit who want to make you twitch on the dance floor even as they’re inducing serious paranoia in listeners. They would go on to get even funkier and more techno- and house-oriented in the late ’80s and ’90s. But for my money, the early ’80s remain Cabaret Voltaire’s peak era.

The “Sluggin’ Fer Jesus” trilogy that opens Eight Crepuscule Tracks sets an ominous tone that epitomized Cab Volt’s enigmatically unsettling sound at that time. The first part’s an urgent, desolate shuffle that could be considered dance music, but it’s actually more of a soundtrack for a panic-stricken search for escape from a sinister plot. Part two’s a throbbing industrial nightmare scenario that would segue well into Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” or “Discipline.” “Fool’s Game – Sluggin’ Fer Jesus (Part Three)” features a slurred, ill rap by Mallinder over a malignant strain of electro-funk laced with queasy synth horns. Electro-funk is typically party music, but in Cabaret Voltaire’s hands, it’s a soundtrack for running through back alleys in terror. They loop a white American man shouting, “We’re sick and tired of hearing about all the radicals and the perverts and the liberals,” as Mallinder’s bass methodically describes a tight, head-nodding groove that works on a subliminal level.

“Yashar” is a galloping slice of Middle Eastern-inflected dystopian disco that will appeal to Severed Heads fans. The track’s innate paranoia intensifies every time the movie-dialogue sample, “There are 70 billion people over there.” “Where are they hiding?” surfaces. “Your Agent Man” pits unnerving, warped funk with automaton vocals, as it reflects the recurring CV theme of surveillance and espionage. Think Throbbing Gristle’s “20 Jazz Funk Greats” melded with Gil Mellé’s pestilential Andromeda Strain soundtrack.

“Gut Level” and “Invocation” make excellent diptych of eerie, percolating funk, with the former full of urban-aggro movie dialogue and the latter augmented by solemn monk chants looped into a liturgical drone. The comp climaxes with “Theme From ‘Shaft’” as CV convert the 1971 blaxploitation-funk smash hit into a hazy, cold-sweat chiller-thriller score. With the vocals pitched down to a creepy mutter, it’s practically Residents-like. I wonder what Isaac Hayes thought of it… if indeed he ever heard it. -Buckley Mayfield

Steve Miller Band “Circle Of Love” (Capitol, 1981)

You’ve probably seen this album 593 times while rifling through bargain bins without thinking much about it; no way it could be as wonderful as Fly Like An Eagle, amirite? Well, I certainly zipped right by it for many years. Until one day I didn’t. I finally let my curiosity about the sidelong track on side two get the best of me and… sometimes your instincts lead to positive outcomes. Such was the case with me investigating the 18-plus-minute “Macho City.”

But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here. First we have to dispense with side one, which is pretty disposable. “Heart Like A Wheel” is happy-go-lucky rock harking back to ’50s innocence and sincerity. This sort of regression just sounds depressing to me. Miller gives the traditional song “Get On Home” the synth-sheen treatment that commonly afflicted early ’80s records. It’s an inconsequential bauble. So is “Baby Wanna Dance,” a doo-wop-inflected, early-Beach Boys ditty that suffers from the same insipid cuteness as “Heart Like A Wheel.” “Circle Of Love” is an innocuous love song that bears a slight resemblance to Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac (non-Lindsey division). So far, so uninspired.

But all of that tedium is worth it for “Macho City,” which begins as if it were “Fly Like An Eagle” on amphetamines, working up a frothy head of disco steam. Miller’s stilted spoken-word “rap” disparaging various forms of military machismo lands awkwardly, but that eventually subsides and the band locks into a jam that’s as far out as anything the hugely popular guitarist/vocalist has ever done.

While Miller limits his contributions to some sparse e-bow sighs and a few psychedelic, flanged riffs, bassist Gerald Johnson and keyboardist Byron Allred are the track’s real standouts. The former fingers out a staunch, Holger Czukay-esque funk foundation with drummer Gary Mallaber (including an homage to the famous riff from David Byrne-Brian Eno’s “Regiment”) while the latter produces a series of whooshes and drones that wouldn’t sound out of place on your favorite kosmische krautrock record from the ’70s.

“Macho City” closes with a few minutes of rain and thunder sounds. I bet Capitol execs were not happy with that, but this decision does make it easy for DJs to segue out of and offers a respite for listeners to wonder what the hell they just heard: classic-rock fixture Steve Miller creating an epic club classic that went on to be spun by underground disc jockeys such as David Mancuso. Nobody saw that coming. -Buckley Mayfield

Earth, Wind & Fire “Open Our Eyes (Columbia, 1974)

The first popular Earth, Wind & Fire album, Open Our Eyes went gold and topped the R&B charts, but Maurice White and company still hadn’t made the leap to superstardom. That would come in 1975 with That’s The Way Of The World, with its hit singles “Shining Star,” “Reasons,” and the title track. But the Chicago group’s fifth LP, Open Our Eyes, represents their last stand of stripped-down funk and R&B before their act inflated to a soul revue for stadia. As such, it’s an interesting transitional work and a solid entry point into the EW&F universe.

White front-loaded the LP with two hits. “Mighty Mighty” is the better of the two: fleet, flinty, feel-good funk that hints at the supernova soul to come soon after. Very much in the vein of early-career Kool & The Gang, the song boasts a chorus (“We are people of the party/party people of the sun.”) that can’t help lifting your spirits. It reached #4 on the US R&B chart, #29 on the singles chart. “Devotion” is a silky Commodores-like ballad that verges on innocuous, although Philip Bailey’s supple falsetto and equally smooth backing falsettos are undeniably sweet. This one reached #33 on the singles chart.

Co-written by Rotary Connection mastermind Charles Stepney, “Fair But So Uncool” rolls out some bittersweet midtempo funk that could’ve comfortably slotted onto Sly & The Family Stone’s Fresh, while “Kalimba Story”’s strutting, coiled funk showcases the titular instrument’s enchantingly wonky metallic timbre. The album’s zenith comes on “Drum Song,” a deep, sinuous, kalimba-enhanced afro-funk jam that sounds nothing like future big-budget EW&F smash “September.” The slow, sleazy funk of “Tee Nine Chee Bit” is the closest EW&F ever came to emulating early Funkadelic and Ohio Players, and therefore is great. The closing title track surprises with its slick, Latin soul-jazz and bubbly scat singing, somehow bringing to mind Santana and early Chicago.

Obviously, Earth, Wind & Fire released a lot of amazing music after Open Our Eyes, but they definitely lost some of the gritty charm exemplified by the best moments of this important 1974 record. -Buckley Mayfield

Weather Report “Sweetnighter” (Columbia, 1973)

Here’s the Weather Report album most loved by club DJs. The grooves these fusion virtuosi wrangle on Sweetnighter run hot, long, and thick.

From the get-go, keyboardist Joe Zawinul’s “Boogie Woogie Waltz” proves Weather Report aren’t messing around. Swift, swaggering, and suave, this is epic blaxploitation-film funk. The auxiliary percussion by Dom Um Romao (chucalho, bell, tambourine) and Muruga (Moroccan clay drums) really lifts this undulating python of a track to the next level of groove trigonometry. Another Zawinul-penned marathon, “125th Street Congress,” comes out of the gate growling and prowling, its loping, chunky funk ready to dazzle your legs for 12 freakin’ minutes. Miroslav Vitous’ bass is gravid and funky enough to get Miles Davis to strut (and he never danced) while Romao’s panoply of percussion toys get a serious workout. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Non-Stop Home” features phenomenally intricate and unconventionally funky drumming from Eric Gravatt and Herschel Dwellingham (think CAN’s Jaki Liebezeit circa Ege Bamyasi) while he blows an unusual melody. Wayne’s other composition, “Manolete,” boasts complex polyrhythms in a festive, almost prog-rock configuration. It’s one of his most anomalous and interesting tracks.

But Sweetnighter is not all dance-floor heat. Weather Report get sublimely moody here, too. Take Zawinul’s “Adios,” for example: It’s a beautiful, desolate, twinkling meditation clearly left over from his days composing with Miles Davis’ electric-era groups, especially circa In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. On Vitous’ “Will,” the group creates a shaker-heavy fantasia, its languid, Latin jazz introversion all subdued sublimity and subliminal slinkiness.

Make no mistake: Sweetnighter is one of the brightest jewels you can still find in bargain bins. -Buckley Mayfield

Dennis Coffey And The Detroit Guitar Band “Evolution” (Sussex, 1971)

Even if you’ve never heard Evolution in its entirety, you’ve likely heard bits and pieces of Dennis Coffey And The Detroit Guitar Band’s debut LP sampled in dozens of hip-hop tracks. Head over to whosampled.com and gawp at the profusion of producers who’ve used Coffey and company’s extravagant funk and lysergic guitar tones to punch up their own cuts. (“Scorpio” alone has been sampled or covered 104 times.)

So, yeah, Evolution can safely be considered a foundational building block of hip-hop. The album’s essentially divided into freaky psychedelic funk heaters and simmering mellow joints that still possess traces of funk in their trunks. In the latter style you’ve got “Summer Time Girl,” “Sad Angel,” “Wind Song,” “Garden Of The Moon” (the last sampled by P.M. Dawn for their track “Even After I Die” from their stellar 1991 debut LP). These songs spotlight Coffey’s nuanced melodic chops and unerring ability to write carefree tunes. It helps that he enlisted fellow Motown session badasses like Bob Babbitt (bass) and Jack Ashford (percussion), as well as Rare Earth’s Ray Monette (tenor guitar) and Joe Podorsek (baritone guitar).

As lovely as those pieces are, though, you go to Evolution for the pure, uncut funk. Album-opener “Getting It On” busts out the gate with guitar pyrotechnics that portend extraordinary action over a taut funk rhythm; Coffey gets off a wild wah-wah solo near the end foreshadowing many other moments here. Sampled by Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and nine others, “Getting It On” is a potent way to start an album.

“Impressions Of” is the epitome of blaxploitation-flick funk. Bolstered by chikka-wakka guitar and laced with interludes of crystalline languidness, it makes you want to sprint 100 yards in 9 seconds flat. “Big City Funk” is exactly what it says on the tin. Thankfully, that big city is Detroit, and its innate funkiness is world-class and filthy as hell. Then there’s the radical makeover of “Whole Lot Of Love” [sic], which funks the fuck out of the Led Zeppelin metal-blues classic. Genius.

The record’s climax (and Coffey’s career peak), obviously, is “Scorpio,” one of the unlikeliest American hits ever, though eminently deserving that status. Very few instrumentals make the top 10 in the US, and the fact that there’s an extended drum/conga solo in the middle of the song further distinguishes “Scorpio” as an anomaly. Babbitt’s bass solo also is a master class in maximizing funkiness with minimal gestures. It’s no surprise why this track’s become a fixture in breakdancing circles.

As a lad growing up the Detroit area, I’d hear “Scorpio” on the radio and become transfixed by its galvanizing dynamics and percussive audacity. How could this be happening on a medium as humble as radio? It’s still a mystery—plus, Sussex was an indie label. (For additional appreciation of “Scorpio”’s greatness, go YouTube its airing on Soul Train. You won’t be sorry.)

In case you haven’t gathered by now, Evolution is a funk classic with sizzling psychedelic flourishes, and it still turns up occasionally in the wild at reasonable prices. Grip it with gusto. -Buckley Mayfield

Sonny & Linda Sharrock “Paradise” (ATCO, 1975)

Paradise is an odd entry in the Sonny and Linda Sharrock discography. First, they made the leap to a major label—which, if you know the husband/wife duo’s earlier, highly uncommercial Black Woman and Monkey-Pockie-Boo LPs, made little sense. Second, ATCO tapped Turkish avant-garde electronic-music composer Ilhan Mimaroglu to produce Paradise. Huh?! Hahaha. Did the execs think ol’ Ilhan had the golden radio ears? Uh, no. Third, look how glammed-up Linda looks on the cover. ATCO sure seemed determined to get the Sharrocks’ unruly music into many consumers’ ears. Spoiler alert: Paradise bombed.

While the record company’s bigwigs may have been disappointed by this album, you, the smart listener at home, should find at least half of Paradise to be freakin’ amazing. Whereas Linda’s Yoko Ono-esque wails and shrieks and Sonny’s free-jazz skronk and busted blues and gospel excursions dominated the aforementioned two records, Paradise represents the couple’s attempt to temper their wildness into something resembling songs that humans might want to listen to without fear of breaking their leases. Hell, it seems like the Sharrocks were even trying to make folks dance to their music.

“Apollo” starts as if S&L are going to sex you up properly with some soulful balladry. Their hardcore fans must’ve been furiously scratching their heads. But 100 seconds in, the Sharrocks get freaky in a whole different way, accelerating into a bizarre fusion of early Mahavishnu Orchestra and Billy Preston circa “Outa-Space.” Kenny Armstrong goes nuts on clavinet and Sonny sounds like he’s auditioning for a No Wave band—a couple years before No Wave was a thing. It’s one of the craziest guitar solos I’ve ever heard—and I’ve heard a lot. And then for “Apollo”’s last minute, they return to the original balladic blissfulness… because they’re perverse like that.

With its Mellotron, Linda’s plaintive chants, and Sonny’s spidery guitar filigree, “End Of The Rainbow” carries an air of earthy Alice Coltrane mysticism. “1953 Blue Boogie Children” finds Sonny getting off some unbelievably strange guitar tones and outlandish solos within a fairly conventional blues framework. He really shatters the form, while Linda enters near the end for some distressed vocal ecstatics. The celestial gospel reverie of “Peaceful” almost hints at Spiritualized à la “Shine A Light.” Album-closer “Gary’s Step” harks back to the Sharrocks’ 1970 records with its ebbing and flowing amorphousness, Linda’s acrobatic, Annette Peacock-like “ah”s and “la”s, and Sonny’s furious stroking of the strings at the headstock, creating high tension amid the song’s ostensible placidity.

Last but most, “Miss Doris” is a funk-rock scorcher, but with frenetic Moog embellishments last heard on Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein.” Linda scats up a feral storm as the band bustles with the bravado of Funkadelic circa the crazily cataclysmic “Wars Of Armageddon,” cowbell and all. I occasionally spin this in DJ sets, and its 9 eventful minutes of splintering guitar heroics and undulating rhythms—including Dave Artis’ On The Corner-evoking bass line—sure get everyone’s attention.

Paradise may strike some Sharrock aficionados as too slick for their avant-skronk tastes, but listen closely and you’ll hear Sonny and Linda inserting tons of subversive actions into the mix—and on a major label’s dime. I don’t care if it gets me kicked out of the Actuel Records Fanboy Club, but Paradise is my favorite Sharrock album… by a plectrum. -Buckley Mayfield

Merl Saunders “Fire Up” (Fantasy, 1973)

Merl Saunders (1934-2008) was a Hammond B-3 demon and all-around keyboard badass who is best known for his recordings with the Grateful Dead legend Jerry Garcia. In 1973, Saunders, Garcia, Creedence Clearwater Revival guitarist Tom Fogerty, bassist John Kahn, drummers Bill Vitt and Bill Kreutzmann, and others cut a hot LP aptly titled Fire Up. If you’re familiar with Hooterroll?, the record Garcia made with keyboardist Howard Wales in 1971, you may hear similarities between that and Fire Up. Both are great, if under-acknowledged, gems in the constellation of Grateful Dead satellite releases.

Fire Up starts strongly with “After Midnight,” which Merl and company render in the laid-back style of the song’s composer, JJ Cale, but they make it even funkier, with Jerry Garcia exuding his patented mellow bonhomie on vocals and embellishing the heaven out of the main chugging guitar riff. For even more savory flavor,Saunders gets off some mad, rococo flourishes on organ and electric piano. This might be the best version of this oft-covered song, outside of the original. The low-key party atmosphere continues with a suave, soul-jazz treatment of Huff-Gamble’s “Expressway (To Your Heart).” “Soul Roach” is a greasy af boogaloo-inflected jam that sounds like the best shindig you’ve ever had south of the Mason-Dixon line. Saunders brings in an Arp synth and Kahn helps out on extra organ, because that’s how dang generous ol’ Merl was in 1973.

Fire Up peaks on “Chock-Lite Puddin’,” a cruising funk rambler with Saunders on Arp and flute. This has become my go-to cut from this LP for DJing, along with “After Midnight.” Drummer Gaylord Birch and bassist Chuck Rainey really fatten up the groove here, with bonus mercurial hand percussion making “Chock-Lite Puddin’” dance-floor dynamite. The record closes with a nearly nine-minute version of “Lonely Avenue,” as Saunders and crew turn Doc Pomus’ classic, frequently covered 1956 song into a slinky exercise in melancholy R&B, with Walter Hawkins singing and Garcia soloing with soulful dexterity.

Fire Up is a front-to-back solid collection of keyboard-powered songs that surely illuminated many parties throughout the ’70s, and could do so now among folks of a certain age. Plus, if you’re a fan of Jerry Garcia’s spidery virtuosity, you definitely need this in your collection. -Buckley Mayfield

Bobbie Gentry “Fancy” (Capitol, 1970)

Even though she had a massive hit in 1967 with “Ode To Billie Joe” and released a grip of great LPs from in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bobbie Gentry is not quite the household name she should be. Much like her English counterpart Dusty Springfield, the Mississippi-born Gentry is a soulful, nuanced vocalist who could work wonders with country, funk, rock, and pop material. Aside from singing in her supple, sensuous contralto, Gentry also wrote, produced, and even did the artwork for some of her album covers (including Fancy). She exerted a lot of control over her career for a woman in a male-dominated industry that wasn’t as progressive as it wanted to think it was.

Although she had sporadic chart success in the US and UK, and even hosted her own variety show on BBC TV, Gentry faded from the music biz and the public eye in the early ’80s. But her profile’s received a boost in recent years after being name-checked by young country-music stars like Kacey Musgraves and Nikki Lane, as well as the recent release of the 8-CD box set The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters, should further raise Gentry’s profile… [ahem] as well as this review.

The title track establishes Fancy‘s main mode: slick, orchestral country-funk executed by excellent session musicians from the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and in Columbia Studios in Nashville. The lone Gentry original, “Fancy” finds the singer recounting the rags-to-riches story of an 18-year-old woman whose mother nudges her into a life of prostitution to lift the family out of poverty. It’s so good, one wonders why Capitol larded the rest of the LP with other people’s compositions. On the two Bacharach-David tunes—“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”—Gentry’s Southern-belle gravitas doesn’t thrive in the famous songwriting team’s spick-and-span suburban pop, no matter how well-crafted it is. She sounds a bit uncomfortable and out of her soulful element here. Similarly, the cheerful, waltz-time pop of Rudy Clark’s “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” does not play to her strengths.

Thankfully, Gentry shines on the rest of the album. While Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” may not be the most copacetic vehicle for Gentry, the melody is so sublime that she can’t help making a gorgeous swoon of yearning heartache out of it. Leon Russell’s “Delta Man” is a song into which Gentry can really sink her incisors. She switches the original song’s genders and lays into Russell’s rousing chorus with less brio than Joe Cocker did, but Bobbie out-finesses the English geezer by far.

“He Made A Woman Out Of Me” (written by Fred Burch and Don Hill and earlier covered by Bettye LaVette) is Southern country-funk that’s as lubricious as Tony Joe White at his most seductive. It’s a momentous coming-of-age tale… so to speak. The album’s highlight is Harry Nilsson’s “Rainmaker”; it’s the funkiest, most sweeping track here, augmented by banjo and violin—not exactly staples of the funk genre, but Gentry, producer Rick Hall and his Muscle Shoals crew, and strings arranger Jimmie Haskell make it work to the max. This is my go-to track on Fancy for DJ sets—so it has that going for it, too.

While I’d prefer to hear Gentry perform her own songs, on Fancy she inhabits other composers’ with sly charisma, imbuing them with a strong wiliness that was rare for its time among female entertainers. -Buckley Mayfield

The Human League “The Dignity Of Labour” (Fast Product, 1979)

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think the Human League peaked with this EP. At this early juncture in their career, the band consisted of primary composers Ian Craig Marsh and Phil Oakey and keyboardist Philip Adrian Wright. Oakey didn’t sing a note on these four tracks, and that’s fine with me. Without his stentorian, romantic emoting, the Human League had more room to flaunt their excellent ear for strange textures and alienating atmospheres—you know, the stuff that makes life worth living.

Divided into four parts, The Dignity Of Labour begins with a slice of dark, quasi-industrial electronic music that’s not quite in Throbbing Gristle’s diabolical domain, but it’s certainly more morbid than what would follow in the Human League’s catalog. Marsh and Oakey work up a slightly upbeat death-disco lather, but it doesn’t match the club-friendliness of other late-’70s League releases such as “Being Boiled” or “Empire State Human.”

Parts 2 and 3 enter some deep Teutonic territory. The former is the EP’s peak, its stark, foreboding maschine musik recalling the innovations of German geniuses such as Conrad Schnitzler and Seesselberg. The crystalline timbres the League summon on this track are just incredible. “Pt. 3” is a dizzying whirl of high-pitched, Theremin-like synth and vibrant arpeggios reminiscent of some of Harald Grosskopf’s and Tangerine Dream member Peter Baumann’s work. “Pt. 4” ends things on an eerie note of BBC Radiophonic Workshop-like atmospheres, a sound miles away from what the League would be doing on 1981’s Dare or even 1980’s Travelogue.

As with a lot of things reviewed in this space, The Dignity Of Labour could use a reissue, as it hasn’t seen a repress since the year of its initial release. Seems like a no-brainer for a label like Minimal Wave, Dark Entries, or Medical to re-release it—although there could be thorny legal hurdles. Anyway, I’m just putting that idea out there… -Buckley Mayfield