Monthly Archives: March 2017

‘Sign O The Times’ At 30: Prince Bares The Cross Of His Time To Settle Down

Sign O The Times

Sign O The Times is the tale of three different Prince album projects. Because Prince was cutting edge in terms of the presentation of music as well as the sound of it,he recorded enough music during 1986 for three albums. Two of which were multi album sets. Those were The Dream Factory,Crystal Ball and an album credited to a pseudonym Camille. Due to Warner Bros. displeasure with so much Prince music coming out during a years time,all of this content was whittled down into a double album set. And it was all finally released thirty years ago today as Sign O The Times.

My own personal history with the album came with seeing a very choppy take of the music video for I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”,one of the albums rockier hits,on a VHS tape of music videos my father recorded for me at work from MTV. That was early in 1988. I first heard the hits for the album years later on the collection The Hits/The B-Sides. It was shortly after the albums tenth anniversary that I first picked it up on CD. I’d only read about it through Allmusic Guide before. And unlike with many written reviews,after hearing Sign O The Times so often I still totally agree with the guide’s positive assessment of the album.

Sign On The Times is generally considered to be either his best or most significant album of the 80’s. The obvious reason for this album being considered is best is probably because,even with Prince’s trademark eclecticism,all of the musical ideas and combinations on this album work perfectly for what they are. Its detractors sometimes point out how disjointed the album is. To the point of being highly uneven. In a way, that’s also why this album is so important. As my friend Henrique pointed out to me, its perhaps Prince’s best early use of his vault material. None of this music was meant to heard together,but it sounded as if it were.

Any album that managed to put such disparate music, all intended for different projects,into a context that had some semblance of conceptual unity is the sign of a highly creative mindset. In many ways,the internal maturity Prince seems to showcase throughout this album comes out in his approach to its presentation. Its not him so much trying to fuse different genres into a whole anymore. But rather showcasing his ability at playing funk,soul,dance and rock ‘n roll with equal vitality and identity. Writing my review on Amazon.com of this album was a bit daunting. But it did manage to convey more specifically what the album was musically.


I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t already been said about what is very justly regarded as a classic album. Well maybe the best thing to do is discuss a little about why it might be so revered. In the three years or so since his commercial breakthrough with Purple Rain,Prince had been carefully balance creativity with his need to communicate with his audience. It was a restless struggle that’s basically defined his career and,to an extent his personal character up to this point. Somehow here he managed to make it all work.

Basically this is a double album pieced together from from three aborted 1986 album sessions and reworked into what ended up being one of his 80’s classics. As with any Prince album the sound is eclectic yet somehow consistent. On this album though the range of subject matter lyrically is much broader in scope and in a lot of ways more mature. During this time Prince was also interjecting strong live band and solo elements of jazz into his sound. It’s not only in the instrumentation but in the arrangements too and,not only that his production elements-especially his noted,inventive use of the LINN LM-1 drum machine is on full display here.

The title song here is a completely stripped down,pulsing musing on outwardly focused social ills of the day and very surprisingly became a big hit as well. There are also a good deal of genuinely sunny weather sounding pop/rock tunes such as the bouncy “Play In The Sunshine”. At the same time these songs,being that it’s Prince are not mere “fun” tunes and give you the full spectrum of weather as each song concludes with these minor chorded jazz-funk/blues instrumental bridges that express the human race’s duel consciousness very well.

There’s also a couple of dense,moody funky rockers in the explosive “It”,the tough grooving,hip-hop beat inflected “Hot Thing” and the stomping “Strange Relationship”. This album also offers up enormous doses of funk. Both the classic “Housequake” and “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”,with their precise horn charts and chunky rhythm guitars not only showcase the obvious James Brown influence but give a possible wink to out JB might’ve sounded had his career not been stalled after the mid 70’s and had he just continued on innovating.

So Prince is actually kind of picking up here where one of his musical heroes left off. There are also a series of songs here that just pull everything he does best together. One is the slinky,electronically polyrhythmic jazz-funk of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”-one of my favorite Prince songs and one containing an intentionally misleading come on in the lyric. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” has a similar musical idea married to a lyric that plays on the idea about how opposite sexes may not relate to each other as well as they think.

“Forever In My Life” is a very poignant bluesy funk number that is about Prince maturing when it comes to matters of love. “U Got The Look” is one song here that does sound a little bit like his 1984 era material well,by degrees anyway although Sheila E’s percussion effects and the slicker production make it very distinctly it’s own beast. On an early nod toward what would later become known as praise rock “The Cross” has a very anthemic guitar god styled flavor and is one of Prince most rock oriented songs ever.

On the horn packed soul ballads “Slow Love” and “Adore” Prince is at his most sweet and romantic since the lyrics on his debut album For You. So across the sixteen songs on this album you get a Prince musically and personally in transition,augmenting his musical sound into yet another new territory while still keeping a foot in his original style. Also the lyrics illustrate Prince’s psyche in a similar place and in a way this stands as something of a peak of the stylistic progression he’d been working on since the 80’s decade got started.


Sign O The Times stands as a significant example,be it by accident or partial design, of Prince’s understanding of what his classic soul and funk progenitors had done. Artists such as Ray Charles were expert at playing many different kinds of music-from the soul style he innovated ,jazz and country music. And Prince was able to bring his own artistic personality to multiple styles here as well. It also showcased him in a new musical period too. It was one where he was no longer an on the loose partier. His outlook on nuclear war and other social issues here is not that of resignation anymore. Its one of concern for the future and a better life.

It was author Jason Draper who, in his coffee table book Prince: Life & Times in 2008, described the overall atmosphere of the album best. To paraphrase his words,the album jacket features an out of focus Prince in the foreground. He is walking away from what appears to be the set of a local production of Guys & Dolls. There is a glowing plasma ball in the center of it all. Draper speculated,and perhaps correctly so,that it was not only representative of Prince focusing more on music and less on the rock lifestyle. But also on Warner Bros passing on his planned releases as well.

Prince also delivered an album here that seemed to have provided a better viewpoint for music writers. My father described one such instance where Downbeat magazine (which is generally highly critical of even jazz releases) gave Sign O The Times a 5 star review-essentially describing it as Prince’s magnum opus. This was either in the late 80’s or early 90’s.  Now I can only relate my fathers story about this since I cannot find any confirmation in online archives for it. But it does speaks volumes about how the musical and personal maturation dealt with on the album has had positive results on even professional music journalism.

On its 30th anniversary,this album is also a shinning example to artists and producers who,today, inspired by Prince’s instrumental condensation of funky dance grooves. The Minneapolis sound has become the mainstream production approach now. But what is important for modern producers inspired by Prince is to take a listen to how even on these songs,most done by Prince himself,are possessed of strong chord changes and thick grooves. In fact, Sign O The Times should be experienced fully by any DIY producer/musician today before their next production because it remains that strong an album for that ethic.

My Favorite Songs From The Album For You To Hear:

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‘Commodores’ Turns 40: The Tuskeegee Funk Icons Take It Easy As Sunday Morning

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The Commodores were a band who I didn’t personally associate with funk for many years. A lot of it had to do with how musical literature handled them. That was until it became clear through finding (and listening) to them that the Commodores first four albums from 1974 through 1976 were by and large hardcore albums in what is referred to as the Southern funk genre. The sound was inspired heavily by Milan Williams’ Billy Preston-like Clavinet and the bands extremely strong instrumental vitality. When 1977 came along,the band released their self titled album-one which is celebrating 40 years with us as of today.

This album marked huge changes for the band. Displayed proudly on the jacket,flying through the sky like a fictive jet airliner,is the Commodores new metallic “belt buckle” logo. This would seem to signal a new level of success for them. Commercially,that’s exactly what happened. It was their second #1 R&B chart album in a row. And it was their first album to cross over into to pop Top 5. It also had the advantage of containing the bands two signature songs in the classic funk of “Brick House” and the soul ballad “Easy”. Of course,I was able to convey some of its broader musical influence on my Amazon.com review of the album.


In terms of the funk era of the early/mid 1970’s? It was The Commodores,in terms of newly formed bands, who most thoroughly represented the genre on Motown. Milan Williams, William King,Walter Orange,Thomas McClary and of course Lionel Richie in particular had now proven important members of a formidable musical team. Many of the bands members were multi instrumentalists. With their previous album Hot on the Tracks,the bands funk was at its most diverse and creative.

Their funk was able to blend strong pop songwriting with hefty grooves that put them into the possible position of being a Southern version of Earth Wind & Fire in terms of success. Story goes that around this time,the bands co-producer James Anthony Carmichael had told Lionel that the songs he was writing for the Commodores didn’t work. And that he should be recording the songs he was writing for other people instead. This album marks The Commodores at the exact point before that change began to seriously take place.

“Squeeze The Fruit”,”Funny Feelings”,”Funky Situation” and “Patch It Up” are all very much in the league of the classic 70’s Commodores sound-that think,bass/guitar fried sound that…well to me always represented what made them distinct among the funk bands of that era. On the faster of those numbers? The feeling is almost rocking in a very clean and soulful way. On the slower numbers? The effect is very much in the Sly Stone vein-again with that Southern twist. “Heaven Knows” can actually fool you.

It starts out sounding like a mid tempo,melodic love ballad before spinning of into that Southern Sly Stone variant funk sound on the choruses. “Won’t You Come And Dance With Me” and “Funky Situation” both have slightly more jazz oriented choruses as a wraparound for the heavy funk elements. “Zoom” is actually a very elaborate,cinematic ballad that contrasts heavily with the the countryish gospel leanings of the big hit “Easy” which closes out the album. “Brick House”,with its bass line and cat calling is not only the best known Commodores funk hit but among their very sexiest as well.

Just as a frame of reference,without introducing any needless musical spoilers? This would be the last Commodores album that would have this particular sound about it. Their final two albums of the 70’s such as Natural High and Midnight Magic would favor melodic soul/pop and slow Lionel Richie penned ballads to a far stronger degree than hard funk. At least in terms of how their albums were put together. I do realize there are people who would say that entire change was already underway by the time of this album.

And if someone asked me over a decade ago I’d probably have agreed with them. But one thing I realize is even the Commodores slower numbers during this period represent part of a diverse,fuller funk/soul album package than they might’ve seemed. On this album? The slow songs are slow jams. Full of soul and full of cinematic funk. They have a rhythm and you can tap your foot to them. So when all things get done? This is in fact something of a coda on The Commodores classic funk sound. And a very strong one that any Commodores/Motown/funk admirer who doesn’t already have it should seek out.


Since writing this review,my personal views on the Commodores ballads have broadened. Much of that comes from seeing them through the eyes of my friend Henrique Hopkins. He experienced them through the strong black community of his native Oakland,California. And its helped me to realize how much true Southern soulfulness permeates both the fast and slow music on this album. That might have a lot to do with this having been their breakthrough album. It offered up the best and most soulful side of everything this band can do. And essentially began an entirely new musical period for them in doing so.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Waiting For Your Love” by Toto

Toto had a major part to play in the most significant music of the 80’s. In a soul/funk context,key band members in guitarist Steve Lukather and drummer Jeff Porcoro played major roles on Michael Jackson’s blockbuster album Thriller. Earlier that same year,Toto release their fourth album-itself given only a roman numeral title. The band consisted of top LA session players who had already become famous for backing up artists such as Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs. Even though their debut was successful with it’s combination of West Coast pop/soul and radio friendly rock,their next two albums didn’t do quite so well.

Their lead singer Bobby Kimball was the last to be brought into the group. His rangy voice,which could move its middle range to a quavering falsetto croon, went right with the bands musically eclectic range-from playing simple arena friendly rock riffs to more complex soul,funk and jazzy styles. Kimball was also apparently known as something of an inside cook for the band-especially when it came to sandwiches. That 1982 album IV was the final album Kimball a full participant in. And although its actually an album track,one of my favorite moments of his on it is a tune called “Waiting For Your Love”.

Jeff Porcoro holds down the rhythm with a percussion heavy,percussive beat. Brother Steve Porcoro provides a very jazzy three note melody-followed with the bubbly flamboyance of David Hungate’s phat bass line while Steve Lukather of course assists with an appropriately bouncy,liquid funk rhythm guitar.That represents the refrain and main choruses of the song-only done in different keys. There’s a transitional melodic change between those parts which features a scaling up keyboard part-than a synth brass flourish. Porcoro does an excellent improvised synth solo on the bridge before the choral/refrain part fades out the song.

Toto just happened to debut during a period when rock writers began to dismiss studio based groups made up of strong session musicians as “unauthentic”. Ironically,that may be way Toto’s music has withstood the test of time so well. “Waiting For Your Love” is a superb West Coast jazz/funk/pop number that’s right in the pocket of the groove. And this was coming from people who,together as a band or as session players,were one of the last rock era bands who could play all kinds of music as if it was their sole genre. Toto were both an arena rock and a West Coast jazz funk band all at once. And this song really epitomized that spirit.

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‘Lost & Found’ Nearing Its 10th Anniversary: Ledisi’s Artistry Comes Into Its Own

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Ledisi Young’s artistry represents that ever important intersection of black American music. Her story began in New Orleans (her city of birth) and continued in San Francisco. With a name taken from a Yoruba word that basically means “to bring forth”, Ledisi’s music came along at a time not only extremely friendly to black female vocalists. But also when jazz was becoming a very prominent aspect of black American music again. After releasing two albums independently in the early aughts, she signed with Verve Forecast later and released her third album Lost & Found ten years ago this coming August 28th.

Its an album that I heard half a decade after its release however. 2007-2010 was such a crossroads of the soul/R&B/funk world. Hip-hop based music had become the mainstream rather than the underground. And classic funk and soul instrumental approaches-from jazzy 70’s styles to electronic 80’s ones. And from that,many new hybrids were entering that expanded the natural oriented neo soul sound already in progress. Ledisi’s music was a prime example of this when she finally got major label attention. And this got reflected when I reviewed the album on Amazon.com several years ago.


Well it’s the 21’st century and it’s all too easy to become extremely cynical about any kind of art. As the Barenaked Ladies once mused it does seem like it’s all been done. So basically,in a world fraught with that sort of creative fragmentation as modern soul/funk the best thing anyone can hope to do is come upon new ideas without struggling too hard to try. Usually this sort of process works best if it happens organically. And after a number of failed tries on small labels Ledisi emerges on the normally jazz oriented Verve Forecast label.

Then she released an album that got so much of peoples attention that many people,including myself until very recently assumed was her debut album. It isn’t. But that’s important because it shows signs of strong artist development. And that’s on the verge of becoming a lost art in a world of “get-them-record-quick-so-we-can-get-them-a-reality-show” sort of ethic. Whatever the case this native of Oakland,already famous for it’s Black Panthers,Pointer Sisters and Tower Of Power is more than capable as a singer/songwriter here and fills herself out with showstoppers.

Musically one might say this album follows something of an aural concept. Avoiding the usual “retro-neo” soul approach of beginning the album and/or song with a record player being turned on and vinyl scratching this starts out with more the flavor of a jazz record,with “Been Here” beginning and closing out the album with the effect of applause for the atmosphere. And indeed that’s what this album is basically about. Jazzy,swinging and very funky midtempo numbers with some tricky melodic chord changes from “Joy”,”You & Me”,”Alright”,”Thinking Of You”,”In The Morning”,”The One” and “Someday”.

All of these numbers obviously had Sade and D’Angelo in mind to some degree. Yet Ledisi’s style of songwriting is informed more by jazz and gospel than hip-hop,bringing her lyrics about the joys and concerns of life some extra soul than it was even meant to have. When she gets more on the however we’re treated to some of the highest quality funk of this era. On “Best Friend” and “Get To Know You” both blend strong writing with chunky rhythmic grooves. “Upside Down” does the best job of this though with it’s use of bass keyboards for some jazz oriented descending chord changes-one of the most successful channeling of the often used Stevie Wonder style of writing.

That’s because she knows right where that style of writing is coming from. On the title song we have the only true ballad on the entire album,just Ledisi and the piano for the most part again delivering a passionate lyric and vocal. This is one of those people who genuinely does deserve all of the praise that’s been sent her way. And that’s true when it seems most musical sensations are based more in hype than talent. You’d literally have to hear the music before deciding weather these people are worthy of all their praise. Sadly that may have been part of what kept me at arms length with Ledisi.

Especially with female R&B/soul/funk vocalists there’s a lot of what I’d call synthetic commercialism involved. So when a new such individual emerges as “the next big thing” I’ll tend to ignore it. In the end,out of about ten of these artists that are heavily praised only about half of them will actually live up to it. Ledisi for sure is one of them. And it’s an important reminder to enjoy such people while they are so praised because,in a moment they could be as easily forgotten as they were remembered. Hopefully that won’t happen with this. But enjoy her great writing and great grooves for what they are regardless.


The career of Ledisi only continued to increase in scope. In addition to recording a handful of diverse albums since then,she also began collaborating with contemporary jazz innovator Robert Glasper. She also turned to acting-especially in portraying the Gospel great Mahalia Jackson in the 2014 movie Selma. While the sociological backdrop of contemporary black American musicians continues to face both its external and internal challenges,artists as strong and rooted as Ledisi are always worthy of any props given to them. And the Lost & Found album was truly the beginning of her period of greatest success and recognition.

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‘Ask Rufus’ At 40: Lifting You Up With An Everlasting Love

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Ask Rufus was actually the original name of the band-named from an article in Popular Mechanics. It was a long road from their original lead singer Paulette McWilliams to her young friend Chaka Khan taking over. On January 19th,1977 that original name for Rufus was used for the title of their fifth studio album. Personally,I wasn’t sure if I much enjoyed it after first picking the vinyl up at a Boston record store in 2001. Perhaps the terrible quality of the record played into it. Especially upon hearing it on CD some years later,the album revealed itself as perhaps the bands strongest album from a musical standpoint.

Ask Rufus doesn’t exactly sound like the four that came before it. Some of that was intentional. As Chaka Khan once said,it was her an her husband’s Richard’s attempt to “do away with the leathers,feathers and wild child act”. She wanted to focus on the band and her vocal ability. Its also the type of album that can engender many personal memories for people. Its actually an album that inspired me to begin writing my own song lyrics with jazz/funk music in mind. In his book  Mo Meta Blues, Questlove gave his own personal story about it,and I quote:

My parents were going to do an extended trip. When they told me how long they’d be away, the string breakdown of “Egyptian Song” came on. And then the story got sadder. In Louisiana, my aunt Karen met a man, and they decided to get married. She took the record with her.”

There are many things I could say about Ask Rufus after having over 16 years experience with the album. One major recent revelation was my boyfriend Scott listening to the album with me for the first time and mentioning the first side’s closer “Everlasting Love” resembling George Michael’s “Careless Whisper”. Usually a more vocally focused music listener,I deeply appreciate Scott’s musical observation on that. Of course eight years ago on Amazon.com,I managed to get a hold on the musical vibe of the album on my review there-which of course I will now re-share with you.


Rufus And Chaka Khan,aside from CK’s amazing and influential singing have always been just mildly underrated as musicians. In the years after the debut,especially with the style of the previous Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan their style had been growing from that of a conventional 70’s funk band to what they became with this album.By far this would have to be described as Rufus’s artistic pinnacle and is today justly revered. It is here that Rufus made the transformation to being a fully sophisticated band with brilliant songwriting,fully mature and reflective lyrics and plenty of jazz influences.

With a couple minor exceptions this album showcases Rufus sticking with a mid tempo jazzy soul/funk sound and a great deal of sultry. Not only is it solid proof that funk doesn’t have to be a non-stop rhythm barrage to groove like mad but it features songs that all sound like mini classics.”At Midnight” is the main uptempo song here.The production is far from slick and features probably the best use of synthesizer on a mid period Rufus Recording-the simple beat sounds deceptively like disco but on the breakdown it’s perfectly clear that it isn’t.

Lyrically it’s clear that Chaka,who participates very strongly as a writer here is content on reflecting on how her own complicated marriage and personal life at the at time is effecting her feelings on her own womanhood-strong emphasizing emotional involvement.”Close The Door” is one mournful example;Chaka’s tortured voice and the spare backdrop just drips with melancholy of the soul.

The superb orchestration of Claire Fischer (cousin of the bands drummer Andre Fischer) not only makes that tune so wonderful but dominates the equally mournful instrumental “A Slow Screw Against The Wall”;the briefly funk blowout of “A Flat Fry”,featuring Ron Wood is pretty much the last tune of that type you’ll find here.The memorable and singable “Earth Song” features a cryptic lyric that,if understood sums up Chaka’s lyrical involvement here as she sings,”Stars/what a mystical woman you’ve made me” and on “Everlasting Love” we’re introduced into a deceptively musically simple vision of romance and sensuality.

“Hollywood” is…well almost an uptempo song because it’s so sprightly even as it looks at the effect fame and surroundings of luxury effect people.”Magic In Your Eyes” is yet another excellent romantic moment whereas “Better Days”,co-written by Chaka’s then husband Richard Holland reflects on a possible optimistic future for the then faltering couple.As for the music,let’s just say I think Dido was highly influenced by this song when she did her hit song Thank You ovet two decades later. The title of “Egyptian Song” sounds like the song and lyrics will be very complicated and they are.

 

From the melody down to it’s lyrics it reflects on Chaka’s journey to discover her racial identity that was evidently at that point still very much a part of her life. Here you here a very different kind of Rufus,challenging themselves all around to be a band to contend with a very different kind of groove for a very different kind of funk. There is little likelihood you’ll ever come across an album in Rufus catalog or anyone else’s that sounds quite like this.And that really says an awful lot for this.


Today,I have Ask Rufus on both CD and a far superior vinyl copy that included the original poster. Whether or streaming this album or hearing it via any physical media, no changes in technology will take away what Rufus accomplished on this album.  As I recently learned, it was the first and only platinum album. Perhaps their change in approach to a jazzier,more mature groove had something to do with that. Andre Fischer would be ejected from the group after this album. And it ended up being a dry run for both the bands future career as session aces and Chaka’s solo career that was right around the corner for her.

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Women’s History Month: Nina Simone’s “Four Women”

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Lately, between Andresmusictalk and my own blog Dystopian Dance Party, I feel like I’ve been writing a lot about Nina Simone. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Simone is one of my all-time favorite artists: a bold and daring a performer who nevertheless carried herself with an imperious dignity that earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul.” And, especially in the late 1960s, her voice as a radical Black woman made vital contributions to the very culture that marginalized her.

Take, for example, her 1966 song “Four Women,” an emotional portrait of the manifold ways African American women have been oppressed throughout history. Over an ominous blues piano line, Simone lends subjectivity to four archetypal figures: the dark-skinned slave “Aunt Sarah,” the mulatto “Safronia,” the Jezebel/prostitute “Sweet Thing,” and finally the embittered militant “Peaches.” With her last verse, she declares that the rage at the heart of the Black Civil Rights movement is both inevitable and justified by the indignities of the past; “I’m awfully bitter these days,” she admits, “because my parents were slaves.” And in inhabiting these figures–widely perceived as negative, racist stereotypes–she gives them a sense of humanity and empathy that could not be found in the women’s movement of the time.

The place of Black women in feminism has of course been contested since the days of Sojourner Truth; it remains, unfortunately, an ongoing struggle, seen most recently in debates leading up to this January’s Women’s March on Washington. But with songs like “Four Women,” Nina Simone ensured that the uniqueness of Black women’s experiences were expressed, whether “mainstream” feminism chose to acknowledge them or not. And her music continues to resonate–as evidenced by the above cover version, performed by the Berklee College of Music chapter of Black Lives Matter. It is, as ever, sad that a song written about the plight of Black women in 1966 could remain so necessary over 50 years later; things being as they are, however, at least now we can be glad it exists.

Remember to check out Dystopian Dance Party next week for five more days of music by great women artists! See you soon.

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Teddy Pendergrass’s Self Titled Debut Album Is About To Turn 40: A Blue Note Goes Solo

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Teddy Pendergrass’s debut album will be 40 years old this coming June 12th. It was a huge part of the Philly soul renaissance that peaked during the late 70.s 1977 alone was also one of the red letter years,along with 1977,where funky and soulful album masterpieces seemed to dominate the music world in general. Since this coming Sunday would’ve Teddy’s 67th birthday,it seemed fitting to give his classic debut album upon leaving Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes an overview. And luckily I already wrote one via Amazon.com,shortly after his passing in early 2010,that can be presented here.


Well here I go copping out lol. Teddy Pendergrass has just passed and here I am reviewing him for the first time. Interesting how when someone isn’t with us anymore that sometimes our thoughts about their artistry really come to the surface. In this case it’s a good thing because this is Teddy’s debut solo album and it was and still is a joyous occasion all around. This is one of those albums that,among it’s eight tracks you’ll be hard pressed to find a dud in the bunch.

Between the writing,production and lyrics of Gamble & Huff and the unmistakable sound of MFSB there is a level of consistency and musical potency here that so many people making their solo debut outside a group setting can hope to achieve. It wasn’t as if Teddy hadn’t already achieved a brilliant level of quality with the Blue Notes but at the same time he only outdid himself here. With the varying rhythms,tasty orchestration weaving in and out of the songs and Teddy’s elastic shouts and gruff coos not only made him a huge star with this release but made huge creative strides as well.

The tempo is raised on “You Can’t Hide From Yourself” and again,there’s a message in the music: let what that message is be a surprise when you hear it. Not only that but the percussive groove and the instrumental rhythms within them cross the boundaries between soul,funk,Latin,pop and disco music with such an ease you may in fact forget that the very nature of the Philly Sound embraces all of those flavors into it’s own sound with the musicality of those involved running on all thrusters.

“Be Sure”,the hit “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The More I Get,The More I Want” are all equally shimmering jams all emphasizing the same type of idea and all with the same catchy and well arranged tunes as well. As with many albums of this era the the mid tempo tunes really give singer and musicians the opportunity to stretch out in different ways. The soulful “Somebody Told Me” and the Latin inflected groove of “Easy,Easy,Got To Take It Easy” both allow the heavy,easy and mid range of Teddy’s vocal instrument to announce the versatility he was capable of.

“And If I Had” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” of course give you two of those great Teddy ballads,building on the same foundation as the uptempo tunes he does here. On this album Teddy sings about the ins and outs of romance,the twists and turns of the sexual revolution and the social concerns of people at the time-all embodying the strengths of the Philly Sound and few solo performers pulled it off quite the way Teddy did. In the end you have as astonishing a debut as anyone could possibly ask for.


Teddy Pendergrass: 1950-2010

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Record Store Stories: Happy 64th Birthday To Chaka Khan, Plus Rufus’s ‘Street Player’s Vinyl LP Goodies

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Chaka Khan hit yet another personal rough patch last year so it seems. Thought she had to cancel her concert tour to re-enter rehab,she has reached 64 without succumbing to last years “funkapocalypse” of musical artists deaths. Though her solo career has been an amazing progression,there will always be something a bit magical to me about her grooves with Rufus. Especially in the mid 70’s to early 80’s. The scope of evolution from their blues/rock oriented early sound to a uniquely produced jazzy funk sound in their later years really came into focus on their 1978-just prior to Chaka going solo. The name of that album was Street Player.

This album marked the moment when David “Hawk” Wolinski became an official member of the band. And their one and only album featuring Andre Fischer’s successor in drummer Richard “Moon” Calhoun. This is not a story about this album however. Its about being in my town of birth-Waterville,Maine. And visiting a record store there with my boyfriend Scott called Record Connection. This record store is somewhat nationally famous so it seems. And between its full priced records and dollar bin vinyl,there is always something unique to be found at this place.

Whilst visiting there last time,I found a copy of Street Player on vinyl for 4 bucks. I had a CD copy but the cover had gone missing and I always loved the gate fold of the band playing B-ball. Upon getting the album out into my mom’s car,I found something very exciting. It was a press kit filled with official promo photos and information sheets. It revealed an amazing on the spot type history of Rufus,Chaka Khan and their musical position by the late 70’s. For Chaka’s birthday celebration,I’m going to post this material here to speak for itself in regard to the band,its perceptions and those of their record label.


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-Happy 64th birthday CK!

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Pilot Error” by Stephanie Mills

Stephanie Mills is an artist who I knew primarily through consistent name dropping-all before delving deeper into her music in the last couple of years through used vinyl. This Brooklyn native began her career as a Broadway stage actress at the age of nine in Maggie Flynn. As an actress her most famous role of course was as Dorothy in the stage production of The Wiz. While her rangy,gospel soul belt of a voice she seemed to be natural for recording. Yet her early to mid 70’s album releases were not very successful for her. This all began to change during the disco era.

After 1979’s “What ‘Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin”,Mills (one of a small minority of black American recording artists with black management,incidentally) began a winning streak that kept her consistently on the R&B charts and on DJ’s turntables on the dance floor at the exact moment disco transitioned into the boogie sound. One such album from this period was the 1983 release of Merciless.  Recorded at the height of the boogie/electro funk era,she began the album with a version of Prince’s B-side ballad “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”. But one if its more defining grooves was the song “Pilot Error”.

A heavy drum and conga based percussion rhythm starts out the song unaccompanied. Then an synth riser that sounds simulating an airplane engine opens into the refrain of the song. This is that rhythm playing along with a snaky synth bass-with a popping rhythm guitar playing the accents. Another synthesizer plays some slightly jazzy harmony chords. On the choruses,the vocal aspect of the melody goes into a harder gospel vibe (complete with backup harmonies) and the percussion going up a bit higher in the mix again. The lead synth takes a solo on the bridge before the chorus fades out the song.

“Pilot Error” is one of the most masterful productions I’ve heard from 1983. It has elements of boogie’s use of synthesizer’s as orchestral elements for sure. But it also has that sense of arrangement and live percussion that defined the 70’s funk era. The Smokey Robinson like lyrical metaphors (which extend so well into its accompanying music video) also dovetail (pun intended) into the airplane like synthesizer effects. In terms of its arrangement and instrumental choices,this song is a strong candidate for the Top 10 grooves from the boogie/post disco funk era.

 

 

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Trans Europe Express Turns 40: Kraftwerk’s Rendezvous With T.E.E

Trans Europe Express

Kraftwerk now represent part of the base value of the electro funk sound as far as I’m concerned. Obviously Stevie Wonder’s 70’s works on TONTO innovated that sound in a major way as well. A large part of Kraftwerk’s sonic additions to the electro/techno music genres come from the album that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary today-1977’s Trans Europe Express. Ralf Hutter,Florian Schneider,Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur had already been the going lineup of the group for four years by the time this came out. And it not only changed the face of music,but the entire general sound of the group itself.

Since their 1974 album Autobahn, Kraftwerk’s music had been becoming more thoroughly electronic in nature. The interesting thing I didn’t know about Trans Europe Express was that it was conceived and recorded in 1976-releasing the next year. That meant that it all came to be before Donna Summer’s equally game changing electronic dance masterpiece “I Feel Love” with Giorgio Moroder. Karl Bartos once spoke of James Brown in a recent Krautrock documentary as being a huge rhythmic influence on Kraftwerk’s late 70’s and early 80’s sound. And much of that got started on this album.

Much of Trans Europe Express is divided into two musical suites-each divided into separate cuts. Yet each following unifying themes. The “suite” of “Europe Endless” (which begins the album),”Frans Schubert” and the closer “Endless Endless” all surround the use of the Synthanorma sequencer,a customized device which allowed them to electronically orchestrate these pieces-melodically based in European classical music. The first of these numbers develops into a rhythmically grooving uptempo jam that runs for over 9 minutes. The sequenced melody is the glue that binds it all together all the same.

“Trans Europe Express” is all based on a slow,heavily resonating electronic drum/ percussion rhythm. The melodic instrumentation involves a series of up and down scaling orchestral string synthesizers backed up by some thick,funky Moog bass. On its extended shadows “Metal On Metal” and “Abzug”,the spoken word elements and orchestration are replaced by electronic industrial tones and repetitious choral vocals. There are two other separate songs on the album. One is the slow,ominous pulse of “The Hall Of Mirrors” and the percussive,almost melodically Gothic styled “Showroom Dummies”.

It was really two people who got me interested in the Trans Europe Express album. First was Afrika Bambaataa. And the other was my father. He told me a story of how he and his old friend David were driving to the Maine state capitol of Augusta while playing this album on an 8-Track. My dad described a memory of hearing the song “Trans Europe Express”‘s metronomic,train like rhythm as they watched the lines in the middle of the road go by. Considering Kraftwerk’s love of industrial rhythm going back to “Autobahn”,this is a superb aural legacy as to the type of groove Kraftwerk innovated with this album.

Trans Europe Express also innovated the way electronic albums were assembled. With six of its eight tracks being variations of two songs, this could very well be one of the first extended remix albums as well. Its implicit lyrical themes of cultural celebration (in this case a futurist,unified Europe) and celebrity self reflection are likely just some of the reasons this album is so influential on electro hip-hop and techno music genres. In as much as it in turn wrote the book on what has become the EDM genre, Trans Europe Express remains a treasure trove for both explored and unexplored dance music revolutions.

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