Soul, Funk and Disco

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

Marvin Gaye “Trouble Man” (1972)

The title track is reason enough to own this great LP. It’s a jazzy, strutting, ethereal masterpiece of music that hasn’t aged a day in 40 years (don’t those cymbals and echoing snare-drum wafting in over the piano on the intro just give you the chills?) and stands as a major landmark in both movie music and the career of Marvin Gaye.

The rest of this soundtrack is just that, beautiful ‘sound’. The instrumentals that comprise this collection incorporate elements of jazz, soul, classical and pop, to stunning effect. While the movie itself hasn’t exactly endured very well, the accompanying music is timeless. Mr. Gaye had yet another classic on his hands. —Willie

Giorgio Moroder “Knights in White Satin” (1976)

From the cover shot (which appears to have been taken in a sauna) onward, “Knights in White Satin” is a steamy, sleazy Euro disco album that manages to be both captivating and creepy at the same time. Over a steady kick drum beat, bouncy disco strings, and his trademark synthetic beeps, Moroder’s whispered, dirty old man vocals deliver erotically charged lyrics through his thick accent (and his thicker beard) that start off funny, only to make you feel like you need a shower by the end of the LP. And therein lies the appeal of the album, it’s infectious danceability is undeniable, while the wrongness of Moroder’s vocal contribution is curiously fascinating. Only in the seventies, and only in Europe, could “Knights in White Satin” have been born, so enjoy it for what it is. –Ben

Curtis Mayfield “Sweet Exorcist” (1974)

I’m not sure if Sweet Exorcist is the most underrated album of all time. I do know that it would make the short list for such a title. Popular opinion dictates that this record marked the moment when Curtis stopped making classics; but for my money, it’s actually his best album not named Superfly. Some of the rawest, hardest-hitting music I’ve ever heard is present here.

The album is bookended by “Ain’t Got Time” and “Make Me Believe in You,” two numbers which go hand-in-hand with each other. They exude urgent yet stripped-down funk, and do a perfect job opening and closing the album. Also cut from the same cloth: “To Be Invisible” and “Suffer,” a pair of powerful ballads.

These are incredible songs, as well as “Power to the People,” which is uplifting yet directly political in classic Mayfield fashion. There are two particular cuts on Sweet Exorcist, however, which are among the all-time greats. The first is the title track, which manages to be peaceful, packed with emotion and subtly badass all at once. The other: “Kung Fu,” the album’s big single. Sometimes written off as a gimmicky “me too” from the “Kung Fu Fighting” era, it’s actually one of the grittiest, rawest funk tracks ever recorded.

The production is uniformly excellent, albeit in a way far different from the lush arrangements of Curtis or Superfly. The closest comparison, stylistically, would be Roots’ key track “Underground.” If you’re like me and consider that one of Mayfield’s finest songs, Sweet Exorcist will resonate with you in a big way. —Sterling

Rosebud “Discoballs – A Tribute to Pink Floyd” (1977)

Being neither a massive fan of Pink Floyd OR Disco at the time I discovered Rosebud, you’d have been hard-pressed to convince me of this record’s genius based on description alone.  But holy crap – this record goes beyond likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices.  Throw this sick puppy on the turntable once and JUST TRY to deny the power.  I defy you to.

Like nearly all Disco success stories of the day, Rosebud was a studio project, strategically assembled from the cream of French session musicians of the era.  The group lineup here is as impressive as it is confounding, featuring two members of the esteemed prog outfit, Magma, and a future Oscar and Grammy award winner in producer/arranger Gabriel Yared.  Yared would go on to future triumphs with highly-acclaimed scores for “The English Patient,” “Cold Mountain,” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” but Discoballs made his name as a world-class producer/arranger, hinting at his bright future in composition.

A project like this could easily have slid down the treacherous slope into novelty, but the performances and arrangements are too combustible and visionary to dismiss.  The dance floor incinerating transformation of “Have A Cigar” checks all of the boxes requisite for a disco track, while managing to sound fresh and exciting, building steadily to an ecstatic finale.  The band play in such a tightly-coiled and controlled funk pocket that it almost sounds looped, and Yared’s subtle touches – hand claps on the breaks, cowbells dropping where the conga line would be,  swooping string stabs – capitalize on the tension the band builds, whipping it into a frenzy of aural sensation by track’s end.  All of this without the musicians ever breaking, or even varying from the initial vamp set up at the outset of the track.  Even if there wasn’t an entire album of Floyd standards to ice the cake, “Have A Cigar” would be a legendary statement in and of itself.  This is one of those tracks that feels like a total genesis moment – pointing the way forward to the House, Techno, and Electro movements of the ’80’s.  I’d wager to guess there’d be no LCD Soundsystem without this record as well.

As my uncle always says whenever he hears this – “Man, when this song would play at Circus people would go crazy – dancing, fighting, pushing…” —YouTube comments for “Have A Cigar.”  Nuff sed.  —Jonathan Treneff

The Isley Brothers “3 + 3” (1973)

“3 + 3” is a celebratory achievement on a number of levels. The radical shift for many soul acts that were popular in the 60s was to relinquish the sweetly string drenched sounds for a stripped down, harder, rock influenced edge. This 1973 recording is a perfect example of how a band can successfully augment a new style and yet maintain the sumptuous tunes and tight grooves. The full time introduction of younger brothers Ernie (guitar) and Marvin (bass) Isley and cousin Chris Jasper (keyboards) to the fold adds a fresh dynamic and a realisation that the older siblings could count on a level of instrumental originality to compliment their obvious vocal skills. Ernie Isley’s dominating licks bear an uncanny resemblance to the skilled grandeur of Santana, even Hendrix. Chris Jasper’s keyboard embellishments disprove the thought that Stevie Wonder was the only black artist who was experimenting with new sonic textures.

The first revelation is the re-recording of “That Lady”, a song that had been in the Isley Brothers back catalogue for 10 years. The extended jam and Ernie Isley’s ecstatic lead gives the song a remarkable resonance that brilliantly invents new silks from old threads. Their version of Seals And Croft’s tepid “Summer Breeze” adds the beautiful vocal harmonies that came so naturally to the brothers, and for this reviewer is THE definitive interpretation of the song. The heartfelt “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” harks to their former glories without a hint of cliché. “If You Were There” is simple joyful pop, and their version of The Doobie Brothers “Listen To The Music” bravely pumps up the funk for a new take on a tried and trusted tune. It’s all here, in triplicate, and without doubt constitutes one of the most entertaining soul albums of the 70s. “3 + 3” is The Isley Brothers watershed moment. –Ben H

From A Whisper To A Scream: Allen Toussaint, The Meters, and the Funky Sound of New Orleans

Allen Toussaint is one of those names people know, but don’t know why. One of the enduring figures of the New Orleans music scene, he got his feet wet in the late ’50’s as a session man for the likes of Fats Domino, moving into production and ghostwriting in the ’60’s for soul luminaries like Lee Dorsey and Irma Thomas and penning many of the songs he is (or other people are) known for today. However, it wasn’t until the ’70’s that Toussaint really hit his artistic and creative stride, when he started consistently working with The Meters and releasing records under his own name. Despite penning and producing reams of classic tunes during this period, his name remains one that, while not unknown, isn’t fully understood. The albums below are a handful of our favorite moments, some better known than others, that defined Allen Toussaint and the New Orleans sound in the ’70’s.

Dr. John In The Right Place (1973) Dr. John’s early “Night Tripper” recordings are classics of n’awlins hoodoo spook, fully evoking the hallucinogenic world of the crazed Creole witchdoctor he built his image on. But after four albums of this kind of dark mojo, the Dr. understandably grew curious as to how the other, day-light-dwelling half lived. Initiating this move with the previous year’s Gumbo, Toussaint and The Meters helped bring it all together on In The Right Place, stirring in an extra dose of traditional New Orleans R&B and funk that helps propel and lift the songs in ways he’d never dared before. While the mood is definitely brighter, some of the signature touches of his early recordings remain, like the moody tribal hand-drumming that pops up on the slower cuts. And then there’s that voice – few things exude the charm and menace of the Deep South like Dr. John’s slurred creole growl – a tool no amount of polish can completely neutralize. This one catches the key players of the scene at the height of their powers, bringing the untouchable sound of The Meters and Toussaint’s stellar horn and songwriting arrangements together with one of the more singular voices of their generation.

Labelle Nightbirds (1974) Though they’re rarely mentioned with the same esteem held for their predecessors (Aretha Franklin, The Supremes) or their direct descendants, Labelle effectively built the bridge between the two. Their high-energy, funky modernization of the classic soul/R&B girl group sound looked forward to the disco inferno of Donna Summer as much as it did the unhinged ’90’s diva-isms of En Vogue or TLC. Notable for the presence of the Toussaint-penned hit and calling-card, “Lady Marmalade” Nightbirds is probably their best album through and through, thanks to Toussaint’s spacious production and arrangements and the lithe maneuvering of The Meters in the pocket funk support. Patti Labelle’s move into a more mainstream solo career sometimes overshadows just how great Labelle were for awhile, especially Nona Hendryx, who wrote most of the group’s material and was responsible for their increasingly flamboyant attitude and image. Along with P-Funk, Labelle were at the vanguard of Nubian-space-glam, predicting the outre stylings of Kool Keith, Outkast, and any number of modern Hiphop/R&B divas.

Wild Tchoupitoulas (1976) Tchoupitoulas St. is an ancient New Orleans thouroughfare, named for the Native American Indian tribe who cut it’s original path along the Mississippi as a trade route. The deep history of the name bleeds through this joyful and unique album at every instance, imbuing the proceedings with a real sense of place, and the people who inhabit it. The band was made up of members of The Meters and their extended family – representatives of the nearly-extinct Tchoupitoulas tribe – and produced by Allen Toussaint. In terms of definitive New Orleans records, this ranks with the best work of Dr. John in the way it wholly embodies the spirit of the city, taking the Meters signature groove and riding it through the streets of the Mardi Gras parade without a care in the world. You could be sipping a cup of dirty Mississippi River water and still be in a good mood when the needle drops on this one.

Allen Touissant Southern Nights (1975) Toussaint seemingly gave some of his best stuff away, perhaps having the intuition (and humble nature) to know when a song was just right for someone else. No matter how many times they’re covered in a House Of Blues revue, Lee Dorsey’s versions of “Working In A Coalmine” and “Get Out Of My Life Woman” will always be the definitive ones. However, like any good man-behind-the-scenes, Toussaint managed to hold back some of his best material for himself. All of his solo albums from this period are more than worthwhile, but Southern Nights may be the crowning achievement of his solo oeuvre. The record employs some of the same tools that made his hand in The Meters and Dr. John’s output of the period so evident while side-stepping the confines of the typical soul-funk record, with laid-back, soul-baring deliveries that roll as much as they groove. He filters his vocals through what sounds like a Hammond Leslie on many of the tracks, contributing to the humid, swampy effect of the proceedings, and transporting us into the otherworldly night scene depicted on the cover. Glen Campbell popularized the title track, but Toussaint’s performance of it remains one of the more moving things ever committed to tape, and a convincing, sublime love letter to New Orleans and The South.

The Meters Struttin’ (1970) It would be remiss (and nearly impossible) to write about New Orleans music in the ’70’s without mentioning The Meters own studio albums – though so much ink has already been devoted to this pursuit, we chose not to single one out here. They are the building blocks of all the aforementioned classic albums, and a bunch of other songs you’ve heard and loved without knowing why (it’s The Meters). Struttin’ is a highlight, but it’s hard to go wrong with any of their early ’70’s albums.

Further listening: One of  Tousaint and The Meters’ more interesting appearances proved to be Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, the debut of one Robert Palmer. Although remembered for his MTV-era hits (and the models in his videos) of the ’80’s, Palmer was a dedicated dilettante…err, soul man, at heart. Although not quite a classic, The Meters, Toussaint, and Lowell George help make Sneakin’ a pretty compelling look for Palmer, making his white R&B moves as close to natural as he’s likely to get. Not for the faint of heart, Toussaint’s involvement in The Mighty Diamonds Ice On Fire remains one of the more curious entries in either of the aforementioned parties’ repertoires and one of the few known specimens of the ill-fated Reggae-Funk sub-genre to this day. File under: much further listening. — Jonathon Treneff

Kid Creole & The Coconuts “Tropical Gangsters/Wise Guy” (1982)

Coming out of the same NYC/Ze Records school that fostered the likes of Tom Tom Club, James Chance, and Was (Not Was), Kid Creole managed to stand out in a scene with no shortage of eccentrics, jokers, and flat-out freaks. One glance at the album covers confirms that no two words could have better summed up the entire ethos of this bizarre ensemble better than Tropical Gangsters, the UK title of the Coconuts third album. Kid Creole was an ex-English teacher who put his Masters degree into the service of a theatrical, but light-hearted take on the post-disco-funk explosion that was setting NYC clubs on fire in the early-’80’s. Creole’s former career bled through into the highly conceptual narratives that pre-occuppied his songs and albums, and Tropical Gangsters is no exception. The loose theme of the album revolves around the group being shipwrecked on an island of outcasts and their “gruesome ordeal”, as they are forced to play “RACE MUSIC” to broker their escape. Being of Latin descent, the Kid and his half-brother and bandmate never demurred from their background, often winkingly embracing it in the music and image of the band. Their sense of humor naturally extended into the songs themselves – “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” employs the female Coconuts in a dialogue wherein our hero must settle a question of paternity the only way a tropical gangster knows how – with brutal frankness – “See if I was in your blood/Then you wouldn’t be so ugly”. Tropical Gangsters takes the coconut and runs with it from here, with seven more hilarious tales of island-life scandal and intrigue that duly threaten to grind the dance floor to dust while they’re at it. KC had made good albums before this, but this was where the songs and the groove finally came together to create the perfect tropical storm. —Jonathan

Curtis Mayfield “Curtis/Live” (1971)

For better or worse, Curtis Mayfield is destined to forever be identified with Superfly. Never having been much of blaxploitation film buff, or funk disciple, I’d more or less shelved him under “important, but not for me”. Then one day – one misbegotten, hungover Sunday of yore, a friend unassumingly dropped the needle on Curtis/Live and blew what was left of my delicate mind. In the moment, the sounds emanating forth felt like a godsend – the only thing that could have possibly soothed my shattered and disheveled mind. This was music beamed down from the cosmos, painstakingly prepared by benevolent hands. This may sound like a lot of hyperbole, but I’ve kept myself honest, revisiting the record months and years after the point of impact, and the results remain the same: this record is a stone-cold masterpiece.

Curtis/Live gets across everything a live album should, but rarely does. For starters, Curtis had the savvy to assemble a batch of musicians who knew how to set up a vibe and dig their heels into it. The band is supernaturally in tune with each other, letting the songs expand and contract with an unhurried precision that intuitively follows Curtis’ restrained, yet highly emotional delivery. Many of his best known songs make appearances here; “I Plan to Stay A Believer,” “If There’s A Hell Below (We’re All Gonna Go), and “Superfly” all get makeovers, and are the better for it. Stripped of the flowery arrangements and porno-funkisms that could de-tooth his studio recordings, these songs are allowed to breathe and inhabit the loose-limbed bodies they deserve. The meditative readings almost border on the devotional, conjuring the same spirits as Sun Ra’s Arkestra at it’s peak, or the hazy and haunted spirituals of Rastafarian nyabinghi music. Thankfully, the recording quality matches the performances, with a room sound so stunningly balanced and alive you can almost hear a guitar pick drop onstage. The definitive Curtis effort, and a must-hear for anyone interested in music, or feeling, period. — Jonathan Treneff

Mandrill “Solid” (1975)

There aren’t a whole lot of bands like Mandrill! Even in the days of War and Santana when a psychedelic stew was bubbling and latin styles were merging, this band was a standout due to the heavy rootedness of their music. Throughout this album the band serve up a set of tunes that blend rather foreboding, dark funk with surreal strings, harmonies and wah-wahs such as on the compelling “Wind On Horseback,” “Yucca Jump” and the title song. They rock hard in a funky place on “Tee Vee”, a song whose message and almost proto hip-hop groove predates the Disposable Heroes Of Hisprocrisy’s “Television” by about fifteen years. There are also some hardcore grooves such as “Peck Ya Neck” and “Stop & Go.” The final song “Slick” is pretty much an instrumental that takes on some very dynamic influences: from the cinematic soul popular with Isaac Hayes to a sort of afro cuban jazz sound. Mandrill and Solid are potent reminder of the cross cultural pollination, from jazz to soul to pop, that the golden age of funk represented.  –Andre