Soul, Funk and Disco

Tim Buckley “Greetings From L.A.” (Straight, 1972)

51jJnF-3yOLTim Buckley’s seventh album effort left quite an impression on me after I heard it’s centerpiece “Sweet Surrender” on the Johnny Rotten Capital Radio show from 1977. The whole show was great, mixing Celtic folk songs into Dub into Soul into Progressive Rock, Velvet Underground-affiliated solo projects, Beefheart, Can even… What a way to get hip quick!

But “Sweet Surrender” was the opener for his show as well, and it was the track that lingered longest in my head. So before exploring Buckley’s complete discography I jumped straight into “Greetings From L.A.” and I still think it’s his personal best. After albums of straight folk gave way to albums of avant-garde instrumentation and aural experiments using his impressive vocal range, he did an about face and moved back into a more conventional form; this time closer to Funk, Rock and Soul.

Buckley’s band is groove oriented whether quiet or busy, and in places they employ lush strings that fly as high as his voice can carry. He was not a limited singer. Actually, all that time making avant-recordings helped develop his voice as instrument approach, and when he belts out numbers like “Move With Me” or “Devil Eyes” he can really imitate those dirty bedroom yelps perfectly… No one saw this coming in his career arc, Buckley party music, but then again by the time he made it to this album he may have figured his audience wasn’t getting any bigger. Might as well have some fun, and it’s the most fun you’ll have listening to Tim. Try this one first. -Wade

Smokey Robinson “A Quiet Storm” (Tamla, 1974)

71IUgu2RM5L._SL1063_Defining a sound… just like he did at the beginning of Motown. Now here he his, just like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, going beyond the pop success for a new sound, new direction, new motivations. Marvin & Stevie went their way; and “Quiet Storm” was Smokey’s way.

His way was smoother, more gentler, never one to ruffle feathers like Marvin or Stevie did with their songs. That’s why Smokey is the genius he is; he didn’t try to do anyone else’s style but his own.

The album is quintessential Smokey…his same songwriting formula he has used for decades. You can imagine that if this were the mid 60s, these tracks would sound something like “Track of My Tears” or “Ooh Baby Baby”. The melodies and rhythms simply reflect what the 70s were about, using “non-native” instruments (latin percussions/rhythms), funkier beats and bass lines, and non-standard rhythms and times. Smokey is a master songwriter, always keeping his ear to what’s hip, and that what “Baby That’s Back Atcha” is; hip, funky, and totally Smokey. “The Agony and the Ecstasy” is old-school Smokey and those from all the ‘hoods and barrios include this in their Oldies mixes (how ’bout that opening line? Vintage Smokey hooking you into the song). And the title track itself started a whole new sub-genre of R&B music…can you think of another song that has done that? Nothing more need be said. – MCB2

James “Blood” Ulmer “Free Lancing” (Columbia, 1981)

303362After releasing his solo work “Are You Glad To Be In America?” through Rough Trade instead of say, ECM, the direction of his work grew more technical but remained engaging after his jump to Columbia. And he didn’t lose what he had going on with the post-punk label: innovation and a feeling of warmth throughout despite his unique brand of guitar flaying.

If you see live clips of Chick Corea in 1986 with his “Elektric” band, or other fusion bands of that time headed by Miles, and your only major turn off is the electric keyboards sounding like the audio equivalent of stale cheese, then “Free Lancing” will work for you. Ulmer’s band is electric, but it operates how a crack jazz/funk/rock outfit should. The heavy bass pops and acts as the main rhythmic component, James sings over his precise scratching and scrambling, and the drums embellish when they don’t drive the most memorable track, “High Time,” to the conclusion of the first side.

Loved by Ornette, post-punk art schoolers, rock enthusiasts and fans of Hendrix’s cross-town traffic music in general… well let’s put it this way, the material you hear on “Free Lancing” was the same stuff they would flaunt in front of Captain Beefheart and PiL. You can consider it a treasure of the era that occupies it’s own space. -Wade

Minnie Riperton “Adventures in Paradise” (Epic, 1975)

220px-Adventures_In_ParadiseA modest album after some initial direct hits, Minnie was one of those up and coming R&B divas set to rival Aretha Franklin. After losing Stevie Wonder as super-producer however, this ’75 release instead opted for an even softer and smoother production, bringing it into the fold of Quiet Storm, the pristine music reflecting the promise of Black middle-class quality of life that was expected to stick around.

The entirety of the album isn’t made up of slow-jams, however… “When It Comes Down To It” has some popping bass lines and sharp instrumental work, while “Minnie’s Lament” showcases real signs of life vocally on top of, what seems to me, like a Xenakis “Rebonds A” sort of drum loop. Really! It’s no wonder Quiet Storm and sophisticated R&B are the next forms up for assimilation by our current musical underground. On one level, the hippest kids are more empathic than ever before and are less likely to dismiss it for classy connotations, and on another, the form is still ripe for mining outside of Hip Hop. It seems only natural that people like Sade and Minnie are new points of reference for genre-appropriating youth. This stuff is reactionary socially and at times, it’s otherworldly sounding.

But how about at the time of release? Of course this was an important album to those whose young lives were being enriched by hopes of a better home and life, an opportunity to raise a family, more cosmopolitan integration. That’s what makes this release so beautiful. It’s an album about love on deeper levels. The most recognizable track drifting through Adult Contemporary stations could be “Inside My Love,” which should be noted, isn’t about sex…“will you come inside me / do you wanna ride inside my love?” But to get back to Black upward mobility, Minnie’s popular album track for radio play, “Love and it’s Glory,” was never released as a single. Yet it had massive air play and it’s message bounded out:

It’s a lonely world my children
You’ve got to do the best you can
If you’ve found a chance to love
You’d better grab it any way you can -Wade

Lizzy Mercier Descloux “Press Color” (ZE, 1979)

LizzyMercierDesclouxPressColorFunny how the “Press Color” album changes with each new pressing… Whenever New York’s infinitely hip ZE label put out a fresh one it seemed to have a rearranged track list and changes in song lengths. With a new Light In The Attic reissue on the way, this tradition continues, and they even expand the LP into a double gatefold that includes Lizzy’s early material from the art-group Rosa Yemen, so keep an eye peeled.

So many reissues and it still warrants a listen again; Lizzy Mercier Descloux was a definite talent from the post-punk / No Wave axis and “Press Color,” with tracks in any arrangement, still impresses. Lizzy was a Lower East Side scenester with ties to Patti Smith and Richard Hell. The cutely impish French gal was also a self-taught guitarist with unique chops that worked in a noise or dance context. Catfish Collins or Arto Lindsay? Somewhere in between that spindly rhythm matrix…

Whatever side of whatever version you get of “Press Color,” the discofied Arthur Brown cover of “Fire” still remains it’s most exciting ride. The convergence of New York styles at the time of this recording places this track at ground zero in dance-punk fun. More confrontational numbers include the lurching “Torso Corso” and the dizzying “Wawa.” With No Wave and post-punk revivals come and gone, “Press Color” still stands as an excitingly fresh mess of styles. -Wade

World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s a Real Thing (Luaka Bop, 2005)

145917Those getting hip to oh say, the sounds of African Guitar Pop have it a lot easier. No need to sift through tapes, for one, and no need for reliable blogger uploads anymore to get at all those World Guitar “Nuggets” available in 2015.

There are comps atop of comps in the World Music bin, and while many may be reaching, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label seems to have a particular set of ears for the stuff. The tag here is “funky fuzzy sounds” on “Loves A Real Thing,” the third offering of the World Psychedelic Classics series. By the time you warm up to Keleya’s “Moussa Doubia” it’ll be clear that this comp has the funky sounds it promises, whether they be produced through a Brownian approach or P-Funk filter. Expect horn sections here and there… but not on the obvious standout of William Onyeabor’s odd electro-funk, which includes icy synths and sparse metronomic beats. More of his particular work can be found on “William Onyeabor World Psychedelic Classic 5,” if you haven’t seen that album everywhere yet.

Apart from the funk, there is the fuzz of distortion on a number of tracks here, best example probably being “Allah Wakbar” with it’s harsh guitar work and churning organs. It’s interesting how the selections enclosed aren’t so locked into one vibe necessarily, but one thing is concurrent with these groups other than their origins; tightness. Despite the shifting of recording quality between tracks, these bands present their most rhythmic songs to stud this comp, and Byrne and co. obviously took the time to arrange the results. A new favorite each play! -Wade

LCD Soundsystem “LCD Soundsystem” (DFA, 2005)

R-472821-1118681571.jpgTen years old! And hardly a blemish on this self-titled LP by everyone’s favorite party group of NYC hipsters. James Murphy (alleged Mark E. Smith impersonator, former Six Finger Satellite sound guy) did most of the work on these tracks, with a little help from his friends and future live players.

Spotted with hits, tracks of mashed up genres come together in a mix of dance, punk and psychedelia drenched in electronic residue. After the release of the totally-meta “Losing My Edge” single, Murphy still had opportunities to sport irony and pretension. “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” kicks side one off and from there takes you to the bonafide pop of “Tribulations” and the Suicide-esque pummel of “Movement,” which probably has the most lyrical heft of the record’s time:

“It’s like a movement/without the bother of the meaning
it’s like a discipline without the discipline of all the discipline”

Bands have to try so much harder these days, not to succeed, but to avoid pastiche. Or in LCD’s case, work to rise above it and approach music making in earnest. What can all this familiar music mean? Or, what can it be perceived to mean? Real or imagined, these are the pitfalls that LCD manages to dance around. And you get to dance around too, especially on “Thrills,” “Disco Infiltrator,” etc;

Hardly being lumped in with other dance-rock diminished returns of the day (and there were a lot of them, oh boy), LCD’s first release manages to harken back and still sound fresh. And moments like “Never As Tired As When I’m Waking Up” shows that Murphy is just as good a songwriter as he is a studio head. He loves his music, and if you like his long list of refs and citations, chances are you probably will too. -Wade

Gap Band “Gap Band VI” (Total Experience, 1984)

Gap+Band+VI

Well into the pioneering of electro-funk, Gap Band ringleader Charlie Wilson was set on producing a solo effort. But it’s best that he stuck with his brothers and gave the group another solid release; don’t let the indiscernible title of “Gap Band VI” fool you into thinking that this was just a push of the Band’s scraps or B-sides either…

The Gap Band’s brand of funkateering walks the line between P-Funk heavy and Prince post-disco, but with an ear that’s always craned toward the charts and the dance floor. Tight, punchy and future-forward, tracks like “Video Junkie” also employ plenty of machine washes and electronic squiggles that lend a feeling of paranoia. “Disrespect” acts in a similar manner, but embellishes the vibe with high-end percussion and whistle blurts.

Top single “Beep A Freak” is the real crown jewel though, with it’s hovering, ever-present beeper tone and electrobass growls. What might come off as a really dated track (it references pagers, after all) is actually an ouroboros pop-trope about just wanting some double-meaning contact. Put a tight band and a beat behind that and you really can’t fault that kind of songsmithing. -Wade

 

Sly & The Family Stone “Small Talk” (Epic, 1974)

Sly_and_The_Family_Stone-Small_Talk_bAfter some seriously paranoid and political detours, Sly and company went back to basics on “Small Talk,” and that title may sadly be synonymous with how reviewers of the time saw this album. Something like a throwaway.

While not as immediate as previous albums or singles, “Small Talk” can still be taken in as a major pleasure. Still adventurous in the studio with overdubbing, Sly assembles small talk of all sorts (including that of an infant) to crowd your speakers on the title cut, and grooves continue on in a meandering fashion all the way to the end of side one, finishing up with a hard slab of familiar drum patterns on “Can’t Strain My Brain.”

On the flip, single “Loose Booty” (sampled to kingdom come) will be instantly recognizable to first time listeners whether you catch the vocal or drum samples. The greatest example of this popular rip would go to the Beastie Boys on “Shadrach.” Infectious and danceable, this would be one of the last bits of Sly’s output to reach high on the charts. As for the rest of side two, the grooves here are more upfront and are ready-made to be spun at a house party until you hit some slow jams… and strings accompany the final track “This Is Love,” and while it’s not exactly as sumptuous as some Philly-soul record counterparts it gets the job done just fine.

While not as heavy as a riot, this later period Sly release is still something worth bringing up in conversation. And hey, you’ve already heard it, whether you know it or not! -Wade

James Brown “Live At The Apollo Vol. II” (King Records, 1968)

3775411By the time this double album hit shops, people were pretty well aware of James Brown the entertainer. But this live album reveals the emergence of James Brown the innovator; his tight work ethic wrung his Famous Flames into one smooth-running combustive engine capable not only of groove but also of vibe.

James Brown and his Famous Flames run through some pretty standard r&b and soul fare on side one with versions of “Think” and “That’s Life” which only hints at what’s to come with chicken scratching guitar lines and Brown’s lockstep vocal commands. Too many changes run the gamut in these numbers to really give the groove for which Brown would become known for with the Flames and later, his J.B.s backing band.

Side two is where the funk becomes prevalent and shows the future course Brown and Co. would be taking. A medley takes up most of this side comprising tracks “Let Yourself Go” “There Was a Time” and “I Feel All Right,” which is presented as one seamless, repetitive groove-maker feeding off of audience participation. Meanwhile, the Famous Flames act as one autonomous unit set to Brown’s strict preferences throughout these performances. Classic cut “Cold Sweat” comes in on command from their funky fuehrer and closes out side two.

The funk continues on side three, but not quite in the same lose-yourself-to-dance futurist vein as the previous side. Classic “I Got You (I Feel Good)” arrives in an incredibly abbreviated 30 second form and opens into the splendid and eventually entrancing “Prisoner of Love.” Side four closes with old familiar numbers leading up to the finale of “Please, Please, Please…”

James Brown really was one of the hardest working and most forward-looking men in show business, and also one of the hardest taskmasters, as evidenced by the near-peerless playing you’ll hear from this document. -Wade

Scritti Politti “Early” (Rough Trade, 2004)

51WGS4T6D0LBefore becoming an equally interesting pop group, Scritti Politti were actually a band brought up like Amon Duul… As a commune collective. But the performing three-piece core were more than a political message in a musical vehicle; they had one of the tightest rhythm sections of the post-punk vanguard in their native UK.

This collection of singles on “Early” begins with Scritti finding their footing on rigid tracks like “Skank Bloc Bologna” and “Messthetics” which utilize odd rhythms that are very un-rock like. It’s hard to really grasp what their sound is, but the production here makes everything seem dank and bass lines are always high in the mix, bubbling to the surface next to itchy guitar lines, drums and chimes.

But the real gems in this collection are from their single “4 A-Sides” which kicks off the second vinyl of this double LP. Not quite rock, punk or pop, disparate styles are fashioned together in such a way that seems so natural, you may miss all the great lyrics vocalist/guitarist Green Gartside brings to the mix. Part of Scritti’s appeal is that vocals accompany the music here and not the other way around; listen closely and Green’s ideas of breaking down language blends perfectly with their sharp and wound up style.

And closing out, you get to hear the beginnings of their second stage as a sort of soul group infused with socialist theory and even more interesting linguistic axioms… Smooth, smooth music for language nerds. “Early” is a great assemblage of instrumental workouts and word play like very little else! -Wade

Nile Rodgers “Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove” (Mirage, 1983)

This album was an utter commercial flop in ’83; Nile Rodgers himself denounced it, stating he was too doped up to know what he was doing. At the same time, David Bowie loved it, and used it as a benchmark for the sound of “Let’s Dance”.

So what kind of album is this? At first listen it seems like Rodgers is doing a semi-serious take on 80s club music, but in his (recommended) autobiography he makes clear he was unsure of his artistic direction, feeling trapped by his urban roots but unable to take a step towards something completely new. This explains why his vocals sound so detached, even if the musicianship, mixing and arranging are top notch – as usual for any Rodgers-produced record.

In the end, none of it matters. Rodgers is too talented to make a bad record, even when doped up, insecure or semi-serious. “My Love Song for You”, the token ballad, is probably the best slow jam he’s ever written. “Yum-Yum” sounds like a 2012 R&B group doing their very best 1982 impression, and I mean that as a compliment. Expect eight cool, strangely addictive tracks with a very detached 80s vibe. —Kris