Soul, Funk and Disco

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

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

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 a motherfucker, bolstered by funky drumming, manic cowbell thunking, and a wicked fuzz-guitar solo.

The chart-dwelling “Goin’ Home” closes The Plan with a bellbottomed stomp augmented by alpha-male horn charts; this is climaximum rock and roll that is perhaps the Church Of The Latter-day Saints version of the Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off.” Talk about ending an album on a god-damn high… Still, my agnosticism remains steadfast. -Buckley Mayfield

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 of extreme zonkedness. It sounds like War wrote and recorded this tune after smoking some extremely strong ganja, playing as if in a paranoid daze. “Four Cornered Room” puts most stoner rock to shame. Low-key, it’s a career highlight in a catalog loaded with diverse zeniths. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Joe Henderson “The Elements” (Milestone, 1974)

 

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Would you look at this lineup renowned jazz saxophonist Joe Henderson assembled here… Alice Coltrane on piano, harp, harmonium, and tamboura; Charlie Haden on bass; Michael White on violin and flutes; Leon Ndugu Chancler on drums; Kenneth Nash on a wide, international array of percussion instruments. All of these badasses converged to create a Henderson’s most rewarding album of the ’70s—if not his entire career.

Divided into the four elements, as it says on the tin, the album possesses four distinct moods on each track, all of them worth their extended durations. “Fire” coasts in on a buoyant Latin shuffle and bop-wise instrumental interplay, occasionally blooming into full-throated ebullience. This is not the fire music you may have been expecting. Yes, it’s pleasant and full of Henderson’s mellifluous blowing, but it’s not the barn-burner at which the title hints. “Air” wafts into the region of Alice Coltrane’s Ptah The El Daoud, on which Henderson also played. This is elegantly turbulent jazz bolstered by the timbres of African percussion, as Henderson, Coltrane, White, and Haden engage in a gregarious conversation in which each makes fascinating assertions.

Side 2 is where things really get interesting. On “Water,” Coltrane’s tamboura purrs ominously and Henderson’s sax seductively warbles warpedly over a gently bubbling percussion foundation. “Water” is—wait for it—fucking deep. Henderson saves the best for last with “Earth,” which is quite simply one of the funkiest cuts ever, as Ndugu and Haden lock into a groove that you never want to end. If that weren’t enough, Alice’s tamboura arcs into a transcendent halo of chakra-vibrating tones while Henderson concocts what may be the most memorable and melismatic motif of his career. At another point, White gets off a mantric violin solo that sounds plucked rather than bowed, while later in the piece, Nash recites a meditation that contends “time is only now” while Henderson intones ultimate peace vibes on flute.

If you need further confirmation that “Earth” is a kozmigroov jam for the ages, note that Four Tet included it in all its 13-minute glory for his 2004 LateNightTales mix. Truth be told, “Earth” should go on every mix ever. It exemplifies a certain mystical strain in jazz while radiating an overwhelming sensuality. You can almost imagine it fitting onto Miles Davis’ On The Corner, but it’s somehow too sexy even for that libidinous masterpiece. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Tantra “The Double Album” (Importe/12, 1980)

R-52217-1173438602.jpeg Much Euro disco is simply progressive music given an abundance of party drugs and guided by stricter adherence to steady 4/4 kickdrums, the better to grease dancers’ libidinous movements. I mean, just look at the track lengths on Italian group Tantra’s most easily obtainable release, The Double Album, which compiles 1979′s Hills Of Katmandu and 1980′s Tantra. The record’s peaks, “Hills Of Katmandu” and “Wishbone,” clock in at 16:20 and 15:40, respectively. And contrary to the common perception that disco is soulless machine music, the eight tracks on The Double Album—composed and arranged by leader Celso Valli—abound with moving male and female vocals and the passionate instrumental virtuosity reminiscent of the most revered prog-rock groups.

Case in point is the epic opener, “Hills Of Katmandu.” It’s a speedy space-disco gallop, powered by swift congas and bongos, heroic guitar flourishes, diaphanous female vocals (uncredited, unfortunately), and a synthesizer dialed into an exotic Eastern timbre and formulating a sinuous melody that augments the lyrics’ persuasive escapist theme. This deceptively complex, multi-part piece was obviously geared to eradicate all of your cares while helping you to lose a few pounds on the dance floor. It may not be as famous as Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder’s “I Feel Love” or Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” but it deserves to be.

The six shorter cuts don’t come close to the greatness of the epic bookends here, but they mostly transcend boilerplate happy-happy disco shenanigans. “Top Shot” radiates suspenseful, cop-show rhythmic urgency and features an absurdly upful melody and vocal line that contrast with the lyrics, which deal with spiritually hollow excess: “I get my kicks daily/I’m friends with most of the big shots/I’m full of dope mainly/To cut out most of the stage flops/Don’t really know what to do/I think I’ll kill myself.” At one point there appears an intricately fiery guitar solo that would make Deep Purple or Van Halen fans snap their heads around and say, “DAMN.”

The supremely ebullient dance jam “Mother Africa” unsurprisingly bears a heavy African influence in the chanted vocals with Anthony Taylor’s soulful vocals and those beguiling women singers extolling Africa’s “Tempting and inviting/beautiful, exciting” enticements. LP finale “Wishbone” contains one of the most tensile and sinewy bass lines in disco history, but the plangent sitar flourishes elevate the track to a higher spiritual level, while brash brass charts thrust it into pulse-racing, action-film territory. This is how you end an album, y’all.

When an American electronic label called Italians Do It Better sprouted in 2006, the owners surely had artists like Tantra in mind. They’re not wrong. -Buckley Mayfield

Charanjit Singh “Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat” (His Master’s Voice, 1983)

R-2108668-1460535363-6734.jpeg There’s something to be said about self-explanatory titles. They help the critic and, more importantly, enable the listener to get a grip instantly on what’s happening within the record’s grooves.

That being said, what Indian Bollywood session musician Charanjit Singh achieves on Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat is extraordinary, in that nobody had ever attempted to merge those genres. What emerges on this 1983 LP is a primitive form of acid house, a few years before the Chicago pioneers of that club-music style had conceived the Roland TB-303 squelch and TB-808 beats that propelled it into a futuristic phenomenon in the mid ’80s among heads attuned to underground electronic music. Yeah, Mr. Singh beat the Windy City producers to the punch, but it’s only since about 2010—thanks to Bombay Connection’s reissue—that anyone outside a small circle of cognoscenti in his home country had an inkling what the hell was going on in this synth sorcerer’s lab.

All 10 ragas here pump and snake around the 4-on-the-floor 808 beats for about five minutes; they’re at once functional and sui generis, with the ancient melodies of classical Indian music getting synthesized into bizarre, ultra-vivid convolutions that sound so wrong they’re right. Purists will be outraged, but outraging purists is never a bad thing. “Raga Lalit,” for instance, is a gradually accelerating gyroscope of spangly, fibrillating, simulated santoor tones that causes a vertiginous rush. The rest of the album basically wrings subtle variations on this theme. If this is proto-acid house, it’s proto-acid house with a PhD in instrumental virtuosity. The mercurial motifs that swirl around the über-basic rhythms lift this project into utterly sublime, distinctive realms.

Even if you’ve never had the slightest desire to bust a move to acid house or haven’t the slightest clue about raga’s sonic intricacies, you have to respect the ingenuity Singh displays on Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat. It’s not every decade that you encounter such originality, you know. -Buckley Mayfield

23 Skidoo “Seven Songs” (Fetish, 1982)

 

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Funk got really weird in the UK in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, Medium Medium, Cabaret Voltaire, Rip Rig + Panic, and, to a lesser degree, Pigbag were all finding interesting ways to mutate the American art form in their own severely agitational, Anglo manner. London’s 23 Skidoo were right in the thick of that heady era of funk reinvention, and Seven Songs was their crowning achievement. Here they mastered a sort of funk concrète and wasteland ambience that suggested a bizarre meeting between the Meters and Throbbing Gristle. (That group’s Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson co-produced the record with Ken Thomas.)

Seven Songs spectacularly launches with “Kundalini,” which starts with what sounds like a Theremin being finger-banged and a rendition of Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then comes a mad conflagration of death-march kickdrums, rapid-fire bongos, Tarzan hollers, and dudes grimacing commands like “Move me, get down, spread!” and “Rise!” This is sex music of extreme urgency and chaos. And, as the title indicates, it’s writhing with the sort of primal, libidinous energy that accumulates at the base of the spine… if you believe in Hindu philosophy and that intense branch of yoga. Fuck yeah.

This amazing LP-opener leads into the ultra-tight funk sparkplug “Vegas El Bandito,” which sounds like a lean, late-’60s James Brown instrumental, but Latinized and dubbed out, with Alex Turnbull’s trumpet dispersing into Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis territory. That trumpet part gets delayed and dispersed into a cauldron of heavily FX’d guitar and ghostly drones of unknown origin on “Mary’s Operation.”

The desolate, post-industrial scrapyard dub of “New Testament” recalls “Super 16” on Neu! 2, but in the last minute, it transitions into a distant, Zoviet-France trance-out that sets the scene for “IY,” the album’s most flagrant party jam. This bongos-heavy, pell-mell jazz-funk juggernaut makes you want to have tantric orgasms and overthrow corrupt governments (sorry for the redundancy). The relentless momentum grinds to a near halt with “Porno Base,” in which uptight Englishwoman Diana Mitford natters on about the benefits of young people avoiding pleasure while a reverbed bass plucks and chains rattle in the foreground. It’s an early-’80s British thing; you wouldn’t understand.

The EP closes with“Quiet Pillage,” a sly homage/subversion of Martin Denny’s exotica landmark “Quiet Village,” its idiosyncratic percussive timbres, strange animal and bird sounds, whistles, and thumb piano making the record feel as if it’s staggering to the runoff groove with a dazed expression. What a baffling and oddly satisfying way to finish things.

23 Skidoo went on to cut some other interesting records—1983′s Coup EP (the Chemical Brothers’ pilfered its bass part on “Block Rockin’ Beats”), 1984′s Urban Gamelan, and 2000′s 23 Skidoo—but their best ideas cohered most fortuitously on Seven Songs. There’s nothing else like it. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Les McCann “Invitation To Openness” (Atlantic, 1972)

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You probably know keyboardist Les McCann for his uproarious hit with Eddie Harris, “Compared To What,” but with Invitation To Openness, he occupies a much more chill zone, as exemplified by the 26-minute lead-off track, “The Lovers.” The opening keyboard movement foreshadows a blissful peace, not unlike Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, with Corky Hale’s harp trills adding more timbral tranquility to proceedings. A few minutes in, drums and percussion slide into earshot and a laid-back groove akin to Julian Priester’s sublime “Love, Love” commences, aided by Bill Salter’s stealthy bass. Five minutes in, Yusef Lateef takes the piece to a higher level with snake-charming oboe melismas. Five minutes later, Cornell Dupree and David Spinozza (who’s worked with Paul McCartney and John Lennon) peel off some wah-wah-tinged blaxploitation riffs that seriously enliven the song, inspiring Bernard Purdie (or it Alphonse Mouzon?) to funk up the rhythm to the max. 

“The Lovers” waxes and wanes (but mostly waxes) over its long duration, sounding remarkably composed for an improv jam featuring more than a dozen players. It’s one of the most magical spontaneous-epic recordings in the post-Coltrane world, a cool outpouring of loving spirit by musicians working at the loftiest level of groupmind telepathy. Love, love it. 

By contrast, side two can’t help seeming somewhat less momentous. Nevertheless, the two long cuts on it are worth playing in your next hip lounge DJ set. The 13-minute “Beaux J. Poo Boo” is subtle soul-jazz that, while it’s playing, makes you feel about nine times cooler than you actually are. Its gentle propulsion and Lateef’s fluid, mellow flute arabesques lull you into a state of contentment until close to the end, when nearly all hell breaks loose. But these cats are too cool to ever really go nuclear with the freakouts. 

On the 12-minute “Poo Pye McGoochie (And His Friends),” we hear another pensive beginning before the band heats up with advanced, velvety groove science. McCann’s crispy, spacey Moog motif rears its head periodically to break up the intricate, cerebral passages. Once you hear that Moog brashly flexing, you’ll want to call it up in your mental jukebox every time you need a jolt of adrenaline. Bonus: a badass drum solo near the end by Mouzon (I think). As with the other two pieces, it sounds like all the players amassed in the studio under producer Joel Dorn were simply enjoying the hell out of themselves and reveling in the loose sense of adventurousness McCann had instructed them to strive for.

Invitation To Openness is one of those rare classics you can still find in used-vinyl bins for $1-$5. Snap it up. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Rare Earth “Ma” (Rare Earth, 1973)

 

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One of the first white bands signed to Motown, Detroit’s Rare Earth had a damn good run in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Those were peak times for psychedelic soul and R&B in general, and Rare Earth seriously benefited from Motown’s largesse (they even got their own imprint, also called Rare Earth). Oddly, though, Motown boss Berry Gordy often ordered Rare Earth to perform the same Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong compositions that the Temptations and/or Undisputed Truth recorded. The reasoning being, if one of them didn’t hit, well, maybe the other act would, as if each had their own distinct fan bases. As a fan of all three groups, I can’t discern great differences from their respective versions of those stone classic Whitfield/Strong numbers, but I’m of the persuasion to hear ‘em all. That’s how strong my love is for that writing team.

Anyway, Rare Earth’s sixth album, Ma, consists of all Whitfield material, with Strong earning co-writing credits on “Smiling Faces Sometimes” and “Hum Along And Dance” (the Jackson 5 also covered the latter). Both are incredible jams that you have to go out of your way to mess up, and Rare Earth execute them like the slick professionals they are. Singing drummer Peter Hoorelbeke (aka Rivera) might be the funkiest, most soulful Caucasian dude to hold down those two tasks simultaneously. (I’m willing to be proved wrong, if you have counter examples.)

Talk about balls, though: “Ma” starts the LP with a 17-minute tour de force of stoic, stolid funk and an inspirational tale about a strong, generous mother who raised 13 children, against the odds, and was “stronger than any two men.” Ray Monette lets off some strafing guitar solos and Mark Olson adds percussive, striding piano that ratchets up the drama. As with other Whitfield epics, “Ma” accrues momentum and momentousness as it goes. The man was a songwriting god, and this is yet another masterpiece in his canon.

“Big John Is My Name” is your basic marauding, boastful party-funk anthem, with drum breaks ripe for the sampling, although whosampled.com shockingly reveals that nobody’s done so. That’s just crazy. The Rare Earth rendition of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” differs from Undisputed Truth’s and the Temptations’ in that it’s more rock-oriented and laced with flamboyant keyboard embellishments. It’s probably my least favorite of the three, but it still bears some wicked wah-wah guitar punctuation, and it’s by no means a dud.

For “Hum Along And Dance,” Rare Earth again bring more rock energy—think the Rolling Stones circa “Can You Hear Me Knocking”—to this intense dance cut than do the J5 or the Tempts. Michael Urso kills it on bass, and there’s clenched-fist excitement from start to finish. “Come With Me” bears an acoustic guitar part that paraphrases the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which Rare Earth covered on 1970′s Ecology. It also boast plenty of female groans, a Santana-esque shuffle, and an expressive guitar solo. It’s a mellow denouement to a record that mostly funks festively or furrows brows with earnest platitudes about guarding against deceptiveness and honoring single mothers.

Ma might be the last great Rare Earth album, and I recommend it to anyone who worships Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong—which means all right-thinking people, to be completely honest. -Buckley Mayfield

 

Zapp “Zapp” (Warner Bros., 1980)

 

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Zapp is a landmark of funk, one of the gleaming peaks of future-fucking ’80s R&B. Led by Ohio brothers Roger and Larry Troutman (with two other Troutman bros also contributing), Zapp were a family affair who weren’t as stoned as Sly. Bolstered by their association with P-Funk’s George Clinton and Bootsy Collins—the latter of whom co-produced Zapp with Roger—the Troutmans displayed a genius for minimalist funk jams that often centered Roger’s distinctive and virtuosic use of talk-box, which gave his voice a supernaturally mellow soulfulness.

Recorded at Detroit’s United Sound Studios, Zapp went Gold and reached #19 on the US pop chart and #1 on the R&B chart. If you’re a fan of the ’90s West Coast rap style known as G-Funk, you’ll notice tons of samples originating from the LP’s standout lead-off track “More Bounce To The Ounce” and the slick, midtempo funk ballad “Be Alright.” Yeah, Zapp is foundational in more ways than one.

Let us quickly focus our attention on “More Bounce To The Ounce.” It is, quite simply, the funkiest song of the ’80s—yes, even funkier than George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” Prince’s “Head,” or 23 Skidoo’s “Kundalini.” It’s no shocker that “More Bounce” wound up powering many a G-Funk rap track. It’s a masterpiece of minimalism, as the Troutmans et al. conduct a PhD seminar in dynamics; the way the bass chicken struts while the guitar chimes with percussive terseness and the massed claps snap where the kick drum should be, plus Roger’s unparalleled use of talk-box… well, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime coalescence of elements that you never want to end. I’m serious. It’s one of the hottest and coolest grooves humanity has ever conceived. This one song makes Zapp worth whatever price you’ll pay for it (likely around $10-$12, but don’t be surprised to see that rise).

The rest of Zapp doesn’t really approach the towering heights of “More Bounce,” but it’s solid nearly all the way through, in a way that few ’80s funk LPs are. “Freedom” is sly jazz funk with an indelible, thunder-thumbs poppin’ bass motif. “Brand New PPlayer” is a prime example of funk on the prowl, a slinky seducer with jazzy sax and guitar solos, subliminal congas, and clever male/female vocal interplay. It’s probably the most Parliamentarian cut on the album. The low-key trance-funk of “Funky Bounce” features an odd contrapuntal passage between slap bass punctuation and a fluid, bluesy guitar solo. Make no mistake: Zapp consist of musicians with serious chops. Sure, they’re fond of repetition, but they can flex virtuosity, too. An example is the crystalline, Wes Montgomery-like guitar accentuation that threads “Be Alright,” a slick, funky, summery ballad hobbled by boilerplate romantic lyrics—always a Zapp liability. Unfortunately, the album ends on its weakest note; “Coming Home”’s a peppy and schmaltzy R&B ditty that sounds like it should be scoring the end credits of a mediocre made-for-TV movie.

But pay that no never mind. Zapp‘s mostly golden, which in ’80s funk circles means it’s hella exceptional. Ask Dr. Dre and EPMD, among many others. -Buckley Mayfield

 

M|A|R|R|S “Pump Up The Volume” (4AD/4th & B’way, 1987)

 

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Pump Up The Volume” stands as one of the strangest songs ever to chart in America (peaked at #13). The handiwork of British musicians Martyn and Steve Young of Colourbox and A.R. Kane [see our Sept. 5 review of their Up Home! EP], this seven-minute sampladelic collage both entranced and discombobulated dance floors in the late ’80s—as did its four-minute edit to radio listeners. M|A|R|R|S loaded the track with an absurd abundance of sonic information; it’s as overwhelming a listening experience as anything concocted by the Bomb Squad for Public Enemy or the what the Dust Brothers stitched together for the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. “Pump Up The Volume” is one of those surreal, action-packed jams that can jolt you out of your doldrums while shopping for cereal at QFC (true story).

The main rhythm of “Pump Up The Volume” is a rolling, punchy house-music amble, spookily accentuated with heavily FX’d vibraphone tintinnabulation (I think). The excitement level seriously spikes when they bring in the monstrously funky, Moog-/timbale-enhanced break from the Bar-Kays’ “Holy Ghost.” Other elements producer John Fryer zooms in and out of the mix include the oddly riveting chorus from George Kranz’s “Din Daa Daa,” Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav shouting “You’re gonna get yours!” Washington DC go-go group Trouble Funk chanting “pump pump pump me up!” rapper Rakim intoning “Pump up the volume” (of course), a Last Poets member’s rapid-fire rant from “Mean Machine” (“rhythmatic systematic remote control/magnetic genetic commands your soul”), drums and cowbell from Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Jazz,” and Dunya Yusin’s striking melisma from “Abu Zeluf.” Throw in some scratching by C.J. Mackintosh and you have a recipe for confusion, but the whole thing hangs together splendidly, returning to the original undulating rhythm just when you think it’s going to split at the seams. The US edition of the EP gives you two alternate mixes with slight variations, but both pale before the original epic.

The 12-inch’s other highlight is “Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance).” Written by A.R. Kane, “Anitina” is a corrosive slice of the group’s patented, solarized shoegaze, buttressed with a sexily strutting bass line and some pneumatic ’80s drum-machine beats. Rudy Tambala sings to his “little dollies,” “I’ll feed you sugarkane” and “touch me where it’s forbidden,” and the effect is charming rather than creepy due to his vulnerably soulful voice. While “Pump Up The Volume” hogged the lion’s share of the spotlight, “Anitina” is a stunning gem in its own right, one of the most compelling compositions A.R. Kane ever conceived.

Vinyl copies of Pump Up The Volume commonly appear in used sections for prices much lower than the quality of its contents would lead you to expect. It’s bargain-bin gold, and you should cop one the next time you see it. -Buckley Mayfield