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 … Read more›
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 … Read more›
“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 … Read more›
Incredible Bongo Band sure had incredible bongos, but they weren’t really a band, per se. Rather, Pride Records executive Michael Viner coaxed various musicians to record percussion-heavy instrumentals, including covers of many popular songs of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and pieces for films in order to, uh… make some easy money. Thankfully for posterity (and your posterior), these players ranked among the greatest session studs ever: drummer Jim Gordon, percussionist King Errisson, guitarist Mike Deasy, pianist Joe Sample, bassist Wilton Felder, and many others—possibly even Ringo Starr. The sessions may have had a loose, mercenary intention to them, but they ultimately yielded some truly enduring cuts.
You surely know the popular tune “Apache,” which the Shadows originally issued in 1960. Well, IBB blew it out and funked it up like nobody’s business. The result is one of the most action-packed jams ever waxed and perhaps the ultimate B-boy anthem, its bongos-and-drums breakbeats forming the perfect bustling soundtrack to busting acrobatic moves. In addition, “Apache” has become one the most sampled tracks in music history, especially appealing to hip-hop and drum & bass producers. If you can’t hear why, you may need therapy.
The rest of Bongo Rock is similarly a treasure trove of breakbeats aching to be sampled and instantly catchy, quasi-kitsch instrumentals that want to enliven every party everywhere till the end of time. I mean, check out “Bongolia,” a swerving monster of a tune with flamboyant horn charts, swift bongo patter, and 10 pounds of funk in a 5-pound bag. It’s a veritable godsend for DJs; its only fault that is that it las barely over two minutes. “Last Bongo In Belgium” slurs out some lascivious blues rock with a funky swagger and what sounds like Mike Deasy going off on a third-ear-tickling, psychedelic guitar solo. Yes, the Beastie Boys sampled the drum/bongos break for “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun.” Good catch.
Of course IBB do a truncated but funked-to-heaven and horn-heavy cover of Iron Butterfly’s gothadelic 1968 hit, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” And of course it possesses a very sample-worthy bongo/drum break, replete with flange on the latter. They’re generous like that. The last two tracks—“Raunchy ’73” and “Bongo Rock ’73”—sound like sexed-up, hot-rodding themes to TV game shows that are more risqué than The Dating Game (ask your mom or dad). Once again, there’s a surfeit of funkitude and more fun than should be … Read more›
Herbie Mann’s Embryo label may not have had the greatest track record, but it was never less than interesting during its eight-year run, as LPs by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Brute Force, Miroslav Vitous, and others, attest. Ol’ Herbie seemingly gave his artists free rein, and most of them took full advantage. One of the Atlantic Records subsidiary’s standout releases is Circles by composer/keyboardist William S. Fischer. Fischer—who doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page—plays Moog synthesizer on this very curious record, which boasts Billy Cobham on drums, Ron Carter on bass, vocalist Bill Robinson, no fewer than five cellists, and superstar session guitarists Hugh McCracken (Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Van Morrison et al.) and Eric Weissberg, who played the banjo theme to Deliverance. That’s a helluva lot of firepower for a musician of such (unjust) obscurity. The album’s first track doesn’t really betray how strange Circles will get. “Patience Is A Virtue” is a slow-burning psychedelic-soul number in the vein of Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong’s “Message From A Black Man,” and given gravity by Fischer’s cello army. But then, catching you unawares, “Saigon”’s acid rock surges somewhere in the vicinity of Jefferson Airplane, Phil Upchurch, and It’s A Beautiful Day’s “Time Is.” If that weren’t enough of a radical juxtaposition, the abstract Moog exploration of “Electrix” sounds as peculiar and disturbing as anything off a Nik Raicevic LP or George Harrison’s Paul Beaver-assisted Electronic Sound. Another 90-degree twist happens with “Chains,” which almost prefigures the nocturnal slowcore rock of bands like Codeine or Low. Nothing on side 1 makes any goddamn sense, and that’s a wonderful thing. Turn the record over for another shocking transition, “There’s A Light That Shines,” a poker-faced pop-gospel ditty sung with utmost sincerity and sweetness by Robinson, but laced with Fischer’s crispy Moog embellishments. It’s the LP’s low point, but its cloyingness is nullified by “Circle.” With its unusual dynamics and dark orchestrations, this song’s excellent funk rock sounds like Chambers Brothers attempting their own Forever Changes. “Green Forever” delivers orchestral funk of David Axelrod-esque complexity, powered by Cobham’s ridiculously mercurial drumming and fiery guitar interplay redolent of Miles Davis’ ’70s-era hired guns like John McLaughlin and Pete Cosey. You have to admire someone who ends a debut album with a track like “Capsule”—a cavalcade of chittering and purring Moog blurts. You have to remember, this synth was … Read more›
Though he was immortalized in Tom Tom Club’s 1981 hit “Genius Of Love,” Hamilton Bohannon remains somewhat under-recognized as a suave scientist of funk and disco. This despite releasing about a dozen great records throughout the ’70s and ’80s that contained some of the most exciting and irresistible rhythms ever waxed—as well as, it must be admitted, some of the tritest lyrics and most cloying ballads ever conceived. But Bohannon more than made up for these flaws through his ability to lay down chugging dance tracks that you wish lasted for hours rather than minutes.
Maybe Bohannon didn’t earn greater recognition because on his LP covers he usually looked overly formal and a bit geeky, and his speaking voice on record is shockingly square. Further squareness ensues on the Dance Your Ass Off‘s cover, which blurs a profile of an actual woman’s ass and has the admonition, “PLAY THIS RECORD LOUD P.S. Dance Your Ass Off is not used in the sense of profanity.” [Italics mine.] Above this, Bohannon thanks God and Jesus Christ “for giving [him] strength and inspiration to write, arrange, direct, produce and record this Album.” Points deducted for all of this, but I still recommend Dance Your Ass Off as an ultimate party platter, blessedly free of his usual momentum-killing balladry.
Right from the opening title track, drummer/arranger/composer/producer Bohannon and his crack band lock into a crisp, swift disco kick and cymbal-tap rhythm, buttressed by a nasty bass line, handclaps, bongos, and swampy guitar snarls—and surprisingly dark strings. You can safely ignore nearly all Bohannon lyrics, as they’re always boilerplate party exhortations and meta descriptions about the actual music, albeit sung with utmost sincerity. For example: “Wiggle when you dance/Now wiggle when you walk/Let’s dance, let’s dance, let’s dance all night/We’re gonna rock your soul and set your feet on fire.” Not exactly Marvin Gaye- or Eugene McDaniels-caliber verbiage, eh?
The rest of Dance Your Ass Off alternates between freewheeling disco with flamboyant string accompaniment and slightly slower and greasy-as-fuck funk that nods to the Meters (see “The Groove I Feel” and “Zulu”). If you dig chicken-squawk guitar and militaristically precise drumming, then you’ll love these two cuts. The guitar on the former is particularly wicked. For my money, “Trying To Be Slick” is the LP’s highlight. It’s like Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” on speed, but with more mad flute embellishments and much less socially … Read more›
Osmium captures Parliament (aka Funkadelic) at a time before their trademark stylistic traits had firmly solidified. Consequently, it’s a wildly diverse record, full of songs both expected (if you’re familiar with the P-Funk catalog) and very surprising—like, “check the record to make sure this is still the band from Detroit led by George Clinton” surprising. Yes, Osmium is at core a soul album, but it’s a helluva lot more, too. Because any George Clinton production—especially from the ’60s and ’70s—can never be typical.
Osmium—alternately titled Rhenium and First Thangs in subsequent releases; a 2016 reissue of it is floating around, too—begins with a prime slice of horndog funk, “I Call My Baby Pussycat,” with Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross’ guitars and Billy Bass Nelson’s bass really setting fire under asses. Things grind to a solemn halt with “Put Love In Your Life,” a soul-gospel-tinged ballad sung with baritone gravity by Ray Davis… but then it unexpectedly shifts into a florid psych-pop anthem. Wow, my ears just got whiplash. If that weren’t strange enough, the Ruth Copeland-penned “Little Ole Country Boy” swerves into mock-country territory, replete with jaw harp, tabletop guitar embellishments, and Fuzzy Haskins’ Southern-honky vocal affectations; think the Rolling Stones, but with tongues more firmly jammed in cheek. More ear whiplash. Ouch! (Yes, De La Soul producer Prince Paul sampled the yodeling part for “Potholes In My Lawn.”)
“Moonshine Leather” peddles the sort of sublimely sluggish bluesy funk that occupied some of Funkadelic’s earliest releases, while “Oh Lord, Why Lord/Prayer” is a baroque-classical/gospel hybrid, sung with utmost passion and soul by Calvin Simon and Copeland. It’s definitely the frilliest and most churchy P-Funk track I’ve heard. As an agnostic, it sort of gives me hives, but there’s no denying the sincerity and skill behind the song.
Side two begins with “My Automobile,” yet more Stonesy faux country, but with sitar (?!) accompaniment, quickly followed by the revved-up, libidinous “Nothing Before Me But Thang,” which is the wildest, most Funkadelicized cut on Osmium. The struttin’, ruttin’ “Funky Woman” is indeed funky and ready to make any party you’re attending lit, as the kids say. The hippie-fied gospel rock of “Livin’ The Life” sounds like something off of Godspell or Hair, but it’s not bad at all.
Parliament saved the best for last with “The Silent Boatman.” Another Ruth Copeland composition (she also co-produced the LP, by … Read more›
Nearly all my friends and acquaintances who are into psychedelic music tap Brown Rice* as their favorite Don Cherry album, and one listen reveals why. It’s at once the grooviest, spaciest, and most cosmic-sounding record in the legendary jazz trumpeter’s catalog. Cherry’s hunger for new, adventurous sounds spurred him to travel around Africa, Europe, and the Far East and absorb influences from those regions. For Brown Rice, he called on some trusted comrades to help him realize his ambitious visions, including drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden (both of whom played with Ornette Coleman and Cherry on seminal LPs The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Change Of The Century), and saxophonist Frank Lowe. They and other key contributors combine to create perhaps the most rewarding introduction into Cherry’s large canon.
Leading off, of course, is the title track, the leftfield rare-groove monster jam that launched a million chills on a million cool underground-hip-hop producers and other sussed cats. Verna Gillis’ distinctively eerie “ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh”s continuously undulate under Bunchie Fox’s electric bongos (Bunchie Fox’s electric bongos!), two electric pianos made to sound like a weirdly tuned marimba, Haden’s wah-wah bass eructations, and Cherry’s confidential whispers. Here and there, Lowe unleashes some ravishing rasps on his sax. There’s nothing else really like “Brown Rice”’s alien funk, and it’s worth the price of admission alone. The 14-minute “Malkauns” finds Cherry and company delving into Holy Mountain soundtrack territory. Moki’s tamboura drones in timeless, chakra-aligning tones and Haden’s contemplative acoustic bass sojourns dominate the first 4.5 minutes, then Cherry’s triumphant trumpet fanfares and Higgins’ cymbal-intensive rhythms kick up the energy to a spritely gallop. The track then becomes a virtuoso duel between Cherry and Higgins, as the tamboura/bass players maintain a staunch foundation. The last couple of minutes return to the tamboura/bass interplay, to which you can imagine Alejandro Jodorowsky zoning out.
Another epic piece, “Chenrezig” features Cherry’s guttural, spiritual chants (in a language I can’t discern) foghorn over Hakim Jamil’s tense, rumbling bass and Ricky Cherry’s sparse piano. When Don’s trumpet enters a few minutes in, things tranquilly lift to a more exalted plane. All the while, a surreptitiously coiled rhythm shuffles below. Until it accelerates near the end, “Chenrezig” comes off as a less turbulent, more introspective take on Bitches Brew‘s outward bound fusion. “Degi-Degi” closes the LP with Cherry urgently whispering … Read more›
Has funk ever sounded so freezer-burned and so desolate as A Certain Ratio’s 1981 masterpiece, To Each…? It’s doubtful. ACR and Martin Hannett’s stark, ultra-grey production makes the vocals sound distant and ghoulish, as if they’re coming from a meat locker a block away, while the horns seem to petrify in the dank air before they reach their resolution. But Jez Kerr’s bass throbs with a robust vitality and drummer Donald Johnson keeps things kinetic and ridiculously lubricious. Would James Brown or George Clinton acknowledge To Each… as a specimen from their hard-forged genre? Maybe George would, because he’s an open-minded cat, but the eerie aura that haunts these nine tracks makes me think trad funk aficionados may give it the cold shoulder. I hope to persuade them—and you—to not do so.
All this being said, To Each… definitely has some party jams. “Choir” is an adrenalized surge of funk that carries a Contortions-esque urgency and scathing guitars à la the Pop Group. “Back To The Start” is one of the funkiest and most methodically relentless tunes of the ’80s. While the cavalcade of Latin percussion is muy festive, the female vocals and horn charts on it are literally ill. (Compliment!) “The Fox” is so manic and panicked, it should be used to reanimate heart-attack victims. “Loss” is so goddamn stealthy, so goddamn rubbery, so goddamn grunty… and funkier than Sly Stone’s goddamn silk scarf. To Each… ends on a strange note: the mesmerizing, nearly 13-minute “Winter Hill,” a platform for Johnson’s martial-funk stickwork, which is swathed in murky, ectoplasmic guitar feedback and scary zombie chants. It’s an ambitious anti-climax.
Clearly, To Each… is one of the crowning achievements in Factory Records’ esteemed catalog and paragon of outré, alienated funk. Get on the good (club)foot. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›
Conventional wisdom says that you should be leery of most jazz LPs from the late ’70s onward, but Inner Conflicts by ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham is an exception to that rule. Not that Inner Conflicts is a traditional jazz record. Nope. It’s actually a left-of-center fusion work with loads of Latin percussion and inflections—plus a mammoth electronic experiment that’s a phenomenal anomaly in Cobham’s catalog. Let’s get right to it, shall we?
Inner Conflicts‘ title track is by far the most impressive Heldon homage ever conceived by a jazz artist. (Google “Heldon/Richard Pinhas” and prepare to have your life changed for the better, if you’re not already familiar.) This beastly alien cut sounds like it could fit right in on Heldon’s infernal classic Interface, which came out in 1977. It finds Cobham drumming up a turbulent solar storm while also generating—with Moog Modular 55 programming help from John Bowen—a bizarre mélange of bleepy, gurgly synth emissions fit to score that mythical sequel to The Andromeda Strain. At almost 11 minutes, “Inner Conflicts” is a war of attrition on your nervous system, but totally worth the extreme exertion.
Inner Conflicts‘ remaining four songs are much more conventional, but interesting in their own right. “The Muffin Talks Back” is a flamboyant, eventful Latin jazz-funk fusion that hints at the gluttonous percussion fiesta—featuring Prince protégé Sheila Escovedo and her father Pete—to come on side two. “Nickels And Dimes” could be a rollicking, TV-cop-show theme in waiting, all blustery brass and woodwinds and frantic xylophone and marimba by Frank Zappa cohort Ruth Underwood. “El Barrio” starts as a lurching, heavily percussive, festive jam powered by whistles, congas, timbales, and other percussion instruments, before smoothing out into a undulating throb of Latin jazz marked by Cobham’s busy, potent kit work. The coolly burbling “Arroyo” showcases John Scofield’s well-modulated, Santana-esque shrieking guitar calligraphy.
Throughout the album, Cobham of course acquits himself as a powerful, kinetic, and inventive leader, asserting the world-class rhythmic skills that have made him desirable to so many musicians, including Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Peter Gabriel, and Deodato. But it’s that cataclysmic wonder, “Inner Conflicts,” that remains most vivid in your shattered mind afterward. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›
When the Superior Viaduct label reissued Liquid Liquid’s most famous EP last year (along with their other 12-inches), I and many other heads rejoiced. It finally made the New York post-punk funk group’s vastly influential “Cavern” accessible to vinyl lovers who don’t have deep pockets (unlike the track itself—*rimshot*) or who have reservations about purchasing bootlegs. As you probably know, “Cavern” inspired Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” one of the hugest hip-hop-party jams ever. “Cavern” boasts one of history’s most infectious, buoyant bass lines—thanks, Richard McGuire—and its tensile rhythm makes you want to jump through the ceiling of a basketball arena. You can understand why a popular hip-hop group would want to use it as the foundation for club banger; you can also understand why Liquid Liquid were miffed when Melle Mel & co. lifted the bass part of their song without giving them credit (Sugar Hill Records house bassist Doug Wimbish duplicated it). No doubt 21st-century bands like LCD Soundsystem and Tussle were taking notes to this stripped-down warehouse-funk bomb.
As for the rest of the four-track EP, “Optimo” places Sal Principato’s staccato, nervy New York vocals over a polyglot percussion attack, with some of the most manic cowbell hits you’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. This is a slippery, shuffling funk cut not too dissimilar to what A Certain Ratio were up to in Manchester a few years before with the dazzling “The Fox.” It should be noted that all four Liquid Liquid members played percussion, which helped to make their music the rhythm banquet it is.
Optimo‘s flipside tends to get overlooked, but it too features greatness. “Scraper” flaunts a bulbous bass line and all manner of piquant percussion touches, as well as Dennis Young’s beautifully supple marimba motif. “Out” is the record’s most dubby piece and strides in a pretty strange meter. Good luck dancing to it!
Also, good luck finding even Superior Viaduct’s Optimo reissue, let alone an original copy; it’s already sold out! Time for a repress, perhaps. Optimo should never be oop. -Buckley Mayfield… Read more›
Some albums just ooze a singular atmosphere and vibe that transcend language or rational thought. Milton Nascimento’s Minas is one of those albums. A Brazilian singer-songwriter who boasts a commanding, supple vocal style, Nascimento has collaborated with many prominent American and English musicians (Wayne Shorter, Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson, Cat Stevens, and, uh, Duran Duran), yet his own records aren’t that well known here. But among the record-collector cognoscenti, he’s revered as something of a prog-folk-soul genius. You could think of Nascimento as something of a South American Tim Buckley, but even that doesn’t quite nail his special talent.
My Brazilian import copy of Minas contains scant info about the recording, but maybe not knowing every detail of it somehow enhances the listening experience. Savor the mystery! Milton sings in Portuguese, a wonderfully musical language that has a warm, tranquilizing effect on me. He enlists a children’s choir on a couple of tracks, which is one of my least favorite ploys, but for some reason it’s not as cloying as usual in Nascimento’s hands. Much of Minas is deceptively beautiful; most of the songs here don’t immediately stun you, but rather over repeat listens their oddly alluring contours begin to make sense and trigger your pleasure centers. By the fifth listen, you’re convinced Minas is a classic song cycle as devastatingly moving as Buckley’s Starsailor, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, or any of Scott Walker’s first four solo joints.
Minas‘ highlight is “Fé Cega, Faca Amolada” (which Royal Trux, of all people, reverently and authoritatively covered; look for it on their box set Singles, Live, Unreleased). Co-written with Ronaldo Bastos, this song finds Milton trading unbelievably expressive vocals with Beto Guedes as the music flares and lopes with balletic grace and soulful buoyancy, like some superhuman strain of tropical pop whose rewards will never cease. I’ve no idea what they’re singing, but the vocalists convey powerful uplift, and that lump in my throat is real. Someone at the usually trustworthy Dusty Groove site noted about Minas that “the backings have a positive, triumphant quality that’s extremely upbeat and bright, yet without sounding commercial at all.” This is accurate. Nascimento and his cohorts gently unleash a new kind of beauty on us here and we should all devote a good chunk of the rest of our lives to luxuriating … Read more›