Category Archives: Music Reviewing

A Time to Love, 12 Years Later: Reconsidering Stevie Wonder’s Last Studio Album on His 67th Birthday

timetolove

Yesterday, Andre marked Stevie Wonder’s 67th birthday with a writeup on 1987’s Characters, an underrated record from what many consider to be the singer’s wan years. Today, on the actual anniversary of Wonder’s birth, I thought I’d share an old review I wrote of his still-most-recent studio album, 2005’s A Time to Love. As you can probably tell, at the time I wasn’t a big fan of post-’70s Stevie: I’d pretty much taken at face value the critical consensus that he fell off after Hotter Than July. Now, my opinions are a little more nuanced (but I still mean what I said about the Woman in Red soundtrack). Anyway, in the spirit of celebrating birthdays and feeling old, here’s what I thought about Stevie Wonder at 21…a.k.a., 12 years ago. I need a drink.


What makes worthy artists–legendary artists, even–go bad? It’s a question that’s been asked countless times, and about few artists more frequently than Stevie Wonder. Don’t get me wrong: I love Stevie Wonder. “Maybe Your Baby,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Living for the City“…these, and many others, have long since guaranteed a place in the pantheon for the former 12-Year-Old Genius. But I confess: this reviewer would be hard-pressed to describe Stevie’s latter-day output as “good,” much less “great,” “classic,” or “genius.” Indeed, if one considers Stevie Wonder’s “classic period” to have begun with “Uptight” and ended sometime after Songs in the Key of Life (with the execrable Paul McCartney race-relations duet “Ebony and Ivory” serving as the final nail in the coffin), 2005 marks at least the 25th year since the soul innovator and auteur began his disappearance into the depths of the MOR gutter.

Calling from the

Calling from the depths of the MOR gutter; © Motown Records

In this context, then, A Time to Love must surely be the most important Stevie Wonder album since 1980’s Hotter Than July. Not only was the record long in gestation and much-awaited–it’s been ten years since Stevie’s last, Conversation Peace, a significant chunk of which decade was spent recording (and delaying) Time to Love–but if Wonder’s people are to be believed, it also marks a massive return to form. This is meant to be the album that finally reconciles the brilliant artist of the late ’60s and ’70s with the corn-rowed, sweet-natured caricature of the last 25 years: a virtual pillar of inconsequence who hasn’t changed so much as a daishiki since he was immortalized by Eddie Murphy’s spot-on Saturday Night Live parodies. That, of course, is one tall order, and it probably needn’t even be said that A Time to Love is no Innervisions. But if we can allow ourselves to put our impossible expectations aside and give this album the listen it deserves, Mr. Wonder has a bit of a pleasant surprise for us all: this “return to form” may have its flaws, but it remains a remarkably solid effort.

And Wonder remains (The Woman in Red soundtrack notwithstanding) a singular talent, quite possibly the hardest person to dislike in all of popular music. Simply put, the 55-year-old’s voice is gorgeous, as clear and honey-smooth as it was thirty years ago. Actually, if anything, he could stand to turn it down a notch. “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” which opens the album promisingly with a contemporary R&B beat and dramatic, low-register strings, soon devolves into numbing histrionics from both Wonder and his guest, gospel singer Kim Burrell–a tendency that repeats itself on more than a few of Time To Love’s “ballad” numbers. Excessive length is also an issue, most notably with the first four tracks: cute songs like “Sweetest Somebody I Know” and the jazzy, theatrical “Moon Blue” overstay their welcome after the three-minute mark or so, when they start to feel like exactly the kind of lightweight sentimentality that has become Wonder’s unfortunate stock in trade. If those two songs dip their toes in the sugar water, however, “From the Bottom of My Heart” dives in head first, with a title straight out of the Backstreet Boys files and an arrangement you’d normally have to ride in a hospital elevator to hear.

To be honest, it isn’t until “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” comes along when the album really kicks into gear. A lite-funk jam worthy of Talking Book outtake status, the track breathes some much-needed life into the proceedings and reminds us that Stevie is still good for more than just the sappy ballads. Once “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby” has come and gone, it feels as though what was missing at the beginning of the record has been miraculously restored; the soul is back, and better late than never. Even the soft numbers start to gel. “My Love is On Fire” is smooth and seductive, never maudlin, with funky touches of flute and Isaac Hayes-style strings; while the album-closing title track with India.Arie has all of the epic quality of “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved” but none of the distracting bombast. And oh yes, there’s more funk to be had: “Tell Your Heart I Love You” bolsters its bluesy groove with synth bass and Clavinet (remember Clavinets?); then, of course, there’s the first single, “So What the Fuss.”

It’s fitting that “So What the Fuss,” one of the highlights of A Time to Love, finds Stevie accompanied by a fellow erstwhile pop genius, Prince. Like Prince, Stevie Wonder was an artist in need of a comeback. His talent is just too great to fizzle and fade away, contained by half-assed, mediocre records and the occasional charity single or awards show appearance. And like Prince (whose 2004 release Musicology restored artistic and commercial credibility almost single-handedly), Wonder found his comeback in the form of a sort of compromise: strongly recalling his classic work, but mellowed, tailor-made for an audience that continues to mature along with Wonder itself. It may not have the same kind of resonance as those glory years–few records do–but A Time to Love is possessed of a charm and a beauty all its own. If Stevie Wonder’s “form” is quality and craft imbued with soul, then this is a return to form indeed. Welcome back, Stevie. You’ve earned it.

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Filed under 2000s, 2005, Music Reviewing, Prince, Stevie Wonder

Bitches Broth: Betty Davis, The Columbia Years, 1968-69

bettydavis1

Betty Davis is, as her ex-husband Miles would undoubtedly have put it, a bad bitch. Her trio of mid-1970s albums–including 1974’s They Say I’m Different, which Andre posted about last summer–constitute some of the rawest, nastiest funk-rock ever released. Imagine prime Tina Turner, but with a heavier rock influence; and what she lacks in vocal prowess, she makes up for with a persona so aggressive, you’d swear she was the one beating up on Ike. If you’re even the slightest fan of powerful women and/or heavy funk, then you need to hear Betty Davis.

That being said, my recommendation for the latest release of Betty Davis’ music, The Columbia Years, 1968-69, is a little more conditional. I received the compilation’s (gorgeous!) vinyl release for Christmas last month, and I love it; it sits proudly on my shelf even as we speak. But I can also understand why it wasn’t officially released until last year.

Comprised of two sessions recorded for Columbia Records in 1968 and 1969–the first produced by trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the second by Betty’s then-husband Miles Davis–The Columbia Years is, if nothing else, a fascinating historical document. For fans of the more famous Davis, it’s effectively ground zero for jazz fusion: the moment Miles hooked up with the circle of acid rockers and funkateers in Betty’s orbit, including Jimi Hendrix sidemen Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Without Betty, there would be no Bitches Brew (in more ways than one–that album’s title is said to have referred to Betty and her entourage of countercultural socialities). According to the compilation’s liner notes, Betty’s come-hither purr in her cover of Cream’s “Politician” even ended up inspiring Miles’ song “Back Seat Betty,” a full 12 years after the couple split.

But just as Betty was never “Mrs. Miles Davis,” The Columbia Years is also of interest for reasons beyond its significance in Miles’ body of work. You can hear the seeds of Betty’s own unique stylistic hybrid being planted, as she tries her hand at a version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” heavily indebted to “Stone Free” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience; or even her own composition “Hangin’ Out,” which comes across as a tamer version of later party-girl anthems like “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up.” For existing devotees, the opportunity to hear her earth-shaking style in embryonic form is priceless.

For newcomers, though, I’m afraid the appeal will be significantly lessened. The fact is, in 1969 Betty Davis didn’t really sound like Betty Davis yet; her vocals are thin, and she hadn’t yet developed the hellion’s rasp that made her voice on later records so distinctive. And, while the personnel on the sessions is impressive–not only Cox and Mitchell, but also John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and others–the arrangements lack grit and verve; they have the slightly patronizing feel that comes with the territory of crack jazz musicians slumming in “lesser” genres. It’s telling that Davis’ best music would be recorded with players who were funk and rock musicians first: her 1973 debut, for example, featured Santana‘s Neal Schon, Larry Graham, and other members of Graham Central Station and the Family Stone. It’s also telling that her music got better the more she was at the helm: her second and third albums, in 1974 and 1975 respectively, were both self-produced.

So, yes, everyone should listen to Betty Davis; and, since to know Betty Davis is to love her, then sure, eventually everyone should probably listen to The Columbia Years. But if you’re just getting started, don’t start at the beginning. Check out Betty DavisThey Say I’m Different, or Nasty Gal; hell, check out her canned 1976 album Crashin’ from Passion, later reissued as Is It Love or Desire? Then, circle back to The Columbia Years and see how it all began. With records like this being released and a new documentary set to premiere this summer, the time has arguably never been riper to rediscover Betty Davis. I can attest that she’s a discovery well worth making.

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Filed under 1960's, Betty Davis, Columbia Records, funk rock, Graham Central Station, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, Ike & Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Larry Graham, Miles Davis, Music Reviewing, Sly & The Family Stone, Wayne Shorter

Dangerous 25:Ain’t Too Hard For MJ To Jam!

When Michael Jackson’s Dangerous hit the record racks on November 25th of 1991,I was very aware that it existed. All the videos for the album were premiering on the Fox television network. And tunes like “Jam”,”Remember The Time’ and “Black Or White” were part of the general pop culture soundtrack of the early 1990’s. At that point,my family didn’t have cable TV. And for that matter,little interest in pursuing new music by Michael Jackson at all. And neither did I. Recently,seeing the collectible 3-D diorama of the CD jacket painting purchased by my boyfriend brought back more memories.

On a family day trip to the city of Portland,Maine during 1994 I located  Dangerous on a brand new cassette tape,cannot recall the store exactly. But it was inexpensive. And I decided to pick it up. On the 2 1/2 hour trip back home from Portland,I listened to the 70+ minute album on my old Walkman via headphones. It was during MJ’s public trial by fire,so my first thoughts hearing it was that this would be the last new Michael Jackson that would ever be recorded. Luckily,that wasn’t the case. Yet during the internet age I was able to better articulate my views on the album via one of my Amazon.com reviews.


While not sure I entirely agree on this point. However there is a school of thought that,while containing many excellent songs and performances,Bad has often been viewed in revision as an album that was a bit musically behind the times. All I knew was that between there and here? Michael Jackson parted company from the production of Quincy Jones. Sure there were numerous reasons for this. One of them is why the two matters I just mentioned were interrelated.

Seems Mike had wanted to bring in Teddy Riley-the pioneering new jack swing producer,leader of Guy and by than already producing hits for Keith Sweat and Al B. Sure,to help out with his 1987 release. One can just imagine if MJ had songs like “Night And Day” or “Teddy’s Jam” on the radio during the time. But I can see Quincy’s side of it too. Why have too many cooks in the kitchen? Quincy and Bruce Swedien were almost too much on their own.

The project that eventually became this album began in the late 80’s-with Mike independent to choose Riley as producer but retain master engineer Swedien as well. But not only was Mike’s post record breaking status alienating him from the music loving public. But he was also about to branch off into a totally new,and perhaps even unexpected musical direction.

As usual,an enormous marketing campaign ensued between Mike and Epic-with the Fox TV network even agreeing to air a new MJ video as they came out. So MJ was all set for yet more record breaking for sure. And this time he was going to do so with music that was breaking some new ground as well.

Opening with a smashed glass and deep voiced countdown,”Jam” opens with the album with a spare,MIDI horn accented new jack funk masterpiece where along with a guest spot from Heavy D.Lyrically Mike is battling optimism and cynicism,from within and without,on this song. “Why You Wanna Trip On Me”,with MJ’s beat boxing part of the percussion along with Teddy’s ultra funky guitar and keyboard riffing suggests that,just perhaps,there were broader issues for people in the world to think about than Michael Jackson’s eccentric personal life.

“In The Closet” is a rhythmically amazing number. Mike’s acapella vocalese,beat-boxing and sensually hushed vocals make up the core of this number until Teddy’s popping synthesizers come into the sexually tense chorus. “She Drives Me Wild” is the most musically busy number here-instrumentally the melodic equivalent of being in a highway traffic jam of engines,car horns,breaks-the sounds of which are all heard as rhythmic elements as Mike sings of being extremely sexually aroused.

“Remember The Time” has the most slippery music and melody here-a very clean and typically Teddy Riley uptempo new jack number full of MJ’s trademark composition elements. “Can’t Let Her Get Away” is another highly funked up number-with Mike as a sexual pursuer.

“Heal The World”,a proclamation for his soon to launch foundation is a hyper melodic smooth jazz-pop type mid-tempo ballad while “Black Or White” takes a Stonsey,guitar fueled yet polyrhythmic rock/funk direction. While racially ambiguous on some levels,the bridge where Mike growls “I ain’t scared of your brotha’/I ain’t scared of no sheets” tells a whole other story entirely.

“Who Is It” is a rhythmically heavy,stripped down and very slow grooving funk groove with Mike as “the other man” whose contemplating his lover being unfaithful-and of course nervous it might be someone he knows well. “Give Into Me” is a slick,darkly hued rocker where Mike begs for sexual release over a chorus of loud power chords. Beginning with a vocal choir from the Andre Crouch Singers “Will You Be There”,of course to become the famous theme song to Free Willy is a beautifully orchestral blend of American gospel and South African choral music

The song not only shows African/African American musical connectivity instrumentally, but also lyrically has an aural vastness about it-with Mike himself emerging with a powerful vocal crescendo at the songs conclusion. One song I always personally loved from this album,and which I feel may be underrated by some, is “Keep The Faith”. This song starts off seeming like a melodic ballad. Until Mike sings “’cause you can climb the highest mountain” and suddenly the song transforms into melodically and rhythmically powerful modern gospel.

He’s not singing of any particular religion exactly. In his trademark pleas for univeralism Mike suggests here that faith isn’t necessarily something of a religious nature. One area where his univeralist attitudes may have had a really solid point to make. “Gone To Soon” is a very slow orchestral ballad (not written by Mike) and dedicated to his young friend Ryan White,the teenage boy who died after years of suffering from AIDS. The title song ends the album-with similarly powerful (if musically fuller) groove that begins the album-again focusing on Mike’s dejection when a lady is playing him for a fool.

While Teddy Riley should continue to get a big applause for being able to effectively modernize MJ’s production,it it Mike himself who really came through on this album. Musically speaking,this might well be the most successfully forward thinking and ambitious album Michael Jackson ever recorded in his entire career. One huge reason for that is that Mike,a man with an enormous amount of different ways he can musically utilize his voice,uses that element of his talent as a huge instrumental element on much of this album.

On the Teddy Riley produced uptempo numbers that begin this album,Teddy’s digitally sampled/synthesized instrumental effects are undoubtedly a big part of it. But also the fact that the percussion tracks come from Mike embracing the aural tradition from hip-hop,such as from rappers like Doug E. Fresh,of beat-boxing with their voice to provide both the main and counter rhythms as well. This created an entirely new (and very very funky) template for Mike’s uptempo music here.

Even when the tempo slows,and the subject matter becomes more trepidatious  on the second part of the album? Mike’s singing approach is also different. His voice here is almost exclusively in its lowest possible tenor range-growling and pounding out the lyrics,again rhythmically in the finest James Brown tradition. This is my personal favorite side of Mike’s vocal style.

One which he’d maintain for the rest of his musical career. Sadly,both personally and professionally,the years after this represented a sad and slow decline for MJ. With the smothering arrival of alternative rock on the pop scene later in 1991,this was probably the last time the public hung on every word about what Michael Jackson would do next. And is a rhythmically powerful,and sadly cut off new direction for MJ.


As indicated by my review,Dangerous was really the final time a Michael Jackson album happily stopped the world. The releases of his later albums,not to mention his death,also had mammoth effects on people. But at the time,they tended to come across as the surprise of a fallen cultural icon making major headlines. Even still on its quarter century anniversary,Dangerous  found MJ making his own musical history again. And for one last time perhaps,doing so in a manner that was as based in creative energy as it was trying to sell an album. So happy anniversary ,Dangerous!

 

 

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Filed under 1991, 25th anniversary, Amazon.com, Bruce Swedien, Michael Jackson, Music Reviewing, New Jack Swing, Teddy Riley

Andre’s Amazon Archive: ‘Condensate’ by The Time (Credited As The Original 7ven)

During the 2008 50th Grammy Award presentation,the original seven members of The Time appeared for a performance along with Rihanna. In the coming years,members such as Jesse Johnson began making some serious noise about a reunion tour and album. Of course nothing had come from the band since 1990. Only a Morris Day project featuring different members and a semi reunion on the Rosie O’Donnell show in the late 90’s.

Finally this album dropped in 2011,apparently independently distributed. It was credited to The Original 7ven-apparently at the bands own choice seeing as they didn’t want to keep delaying an album release simply due legal complications between them and Warner Brothers over their name The Time. The question was what would this album have to offer musically.

The album begins (and eventually continues) with an interlude where Morris Day is asked first by the band and by a mock news reporter if he’s “lost his cool” in terms of attitude. The musical response to this is “Strawberry Lake”-full on arena friendly Minneapolis style synth funk admirers of The Time should already know well. “#Trendin” uses a similar template and a lyrical theme humorously revolving around online social networking and the trendy phenomenon of hash tagging.

“Toast To The Party Girl” melds both the post punk guitar based new wave and hard JB style Minneapolis synth funk styles of the Time’s salad years perfectly together. The title song comes out with a heavier live band JB style bass and rhythm section while “If I Was Yo Man” is more a melodic pop/rock number with chiming,bell like percussion throughout.

“Role Play” brings out a far slower grinding bluesy funk flavor about it-with it’s witty fetish setup. “Sick” has a straight up hard rock flavor while “Lifestyle” has the flavor of a modern R&B ballad…inspired somewhat by Minneapolis though…melodically not quite as interesting. “Lifestyle” is another bluesier piece again in a modern setting while “Cadillac” comes at the music with some powerfully live band oriented funk.

“Aydkmn” brings back out the bluesy hard rock guitar groove again while “One Step” brings out a stomping juke joint style shuffle that actually goes perfectly with Morris Day’s funky gigolo persona. “Gohometoyoman” is a classic slow shuffling soul ballad to close out the album. Only “Hey Yo” seems like a very stereotypical contemporary R&B type of song from this album to me,anyway.

Overall? My impression of this album is that many of the tracks do keep the funk alive. In fact,the band add elements of the Afro futurist types of funk,which seeks to reconcile the past,present and continuing journey of the funk/soul music spectrum together,on many of these songs. In fact a lot of them sound as if they could come out of a Janelle Monae right now more than anything the Time were once associated with. The only quality about this album that drops it a bit in quality is that the handful of attempts to modernize their sound.

This modernization really drag the grooves and instrumentation of the album down a lot. I doubt many will remember the popular dance/R&B/hip-hop styles of say 2004-2008 as being any wondrous contributions to funk. And frankly? It just doesn’t seem like something a band of this caliber,whose members have been so responsible for key developments in funk based dance music in the last three decades,need to be at all concerned with. Aside from this,a decent album to get if you can still locate it inexpensively.

Adapted from my original Amazon.com review from December 13th,2014

Link to original review here!

 

 

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Filed under 2011, Amazon.com, Jellybean Johnson, Jerome Benton, Jesse Johnson, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Monte Moir, Morris Day, Music Reviewing, synth funk, Terry Lewis, The Time

Alphonse Mouzon: Mind Transplant+ More

Mind Transplant

Alphonse Mouzon is turning 68 today. He’s a drummer that I first heard about via my father’s purchase of the double CD set Move To The Groove: The Best Of 70’s Jazz-Funk during the late 1990’s. The song of Mouzon’s featured from that compilation was 1981’s “Do I Have To”. It is currently not available on YouTube. So am doing a special review of the only album of Mouzon’s that I own on CD,1975’s Mind Transplant.  Its special because again,Amazon.com is no longer electing to leave my customer review of the album up. So am going to present it here for you again


As a drummer,keyboardist,composer and producer Alphonse Mouzon it’s funny that his solo career never really made as huge an impact as his main rival at the time Billy Cobham. As drummers,their specialty was dexterity as what you might describe as highly athletic drummers. But the difference’s might’ve lay in the bands they were associated with.

Cobham’s compositions tended to be very technically precise and complex in the manner of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s classic sound . Mouzon came out of Weather Report’s more fluid groove based style of playing. The sounds of those bands alternately effected and were effected by the presence of this two musicians. On here the opportunity presents itself here.

Recorded largely with the company of some enormous guitar talents such as Tommy Bolin,Jay Graydon and Lee Ritenour this album presents a very strong rhythm section exploring too often very different ends of the electric jazz spectrum. The title song explores a perfect mix of jazz-funk and jazz-rock fusions whereas “Snow Bound”,”Happiness Is Loving You” and the vocal number “Some Of The Things People Do”.

The later song addresess escapism through addictions and denial,are all heavy rhythmic funk of the highest (and best played) order. On the more instrumental jazz-rock fusion numbers such as “Carbon Dioxide”,”Golden Rainbows” and “Nitroglycerin” Tommy Bolin takes over as soloist with the exception of “Ascorbic Acid” with Lee Ritenour and Jay Graydon duetting.

As a jazz-funk drummer Mouzon showcases a great deal of talent in terms of his ability not only to express many different ways with the groove but also with his participatory relationship with the other musicians and their playing. On the more jazz-rock numbers his musical dexterity takes over and he falls right into formation with Tommy Bolin who,while only one of three guitar soloists,definitely dominates on the numbers he solos on.

Because there were so many drummers in the fusion genre at the time from Cobham,Stevie Gadd to Norman Connors it didn’t seem like there was much room for the likes of Mouzon. Though matched with more of a technical skill than Connors and possessing a far strong ability with song craft than the more musicianly Cobham,Mouzon probably didn’t enjoy the success he deserved with this album. But he did deserve it.


There is another reason why this overview is special. And its more personal.  A few months ago,Alphonse Mouzon was diagnosed with  Neuroendocrine Carcinoma. This is a rare form of cancer. And is apparently in its latter stages. With the very recent passing of Sharon Jones of another type of cancer, death hangs heavy over the year 2016. Mouzon is still alive though. And a GoFundMe page has been set up for helping out with costs and treatments. Please visit that page. And look to his Facebook page for regular updates on the health status of Mister Alphonse Mouzon.

PLEASE HELP ALPHONSE MOUZON on GoFundMe

 

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Filed under Alphonse Mouzon, Amazon.com, drums, Jay Graydon, jazz funk, jazz fusion, lead guitar, Lee Ritenour, Music Reviewing, Neuroendocrine Carcinoma, rhythm guitar, Tommy Bolin

‘Emancipation’@20: An Artist Free To Do What He Wants To

Emancipation

Prince’s 1996 triple CD set Emancipation is turning 20 today. I’ve read here and there that a lot of people consider this to album to be the  Sign O The Times for the 90’s in Prince’s catalog. In a lot of ways that’s true. Personally,these songs all sound as if they were recorded to go together from the outset,whereas Sign O The Times  was culled from three aborted album sessions. Whatever the case may have been, Emancipation was the ultimate flower of Prince’s 90’s sound. In the end,that’s not so much a matter of deciding if that’s a good or bad thing. But more looking at what Prince’s musical priorities were in the 90’s.

As one of my blogging partners Zach Hoskins pointed out on his own blog Dystopian Dance Party,Prince defined “Jheri curl music” in the 1980’s with the Minneapolis sound. By the mid 80’s many newcomers and funk veterans were embracing some variation of Prince’s stripped down electro grooves. As Prince’s music grew  into a more live band sound,it also grew somewhat more experimental. This resulted in a series of albums in the late 80’s that weren’t so commercially successful. With the major success of his 1989 soundtrack for Batman,Prince saw that his musical future may not lay in setting trends.

For his 1991 album Diamonds & Pearls,Prince heavily embraced the hip-hop sound. He had been weary and somewhat mocking of this genre in the late 80’s-almost behaving as if it was musically beneath his abilities.  Yet Diamonds & Pearls was his biggest commercial success in many years.  And he also found that,on album tracks that could be future hits,Prince could still exercise his eclectic musical outlook as he always had. Then came the battle with Warner Bros. By 1993-1994,Prince became very angry and frustrated at the music industry for what he saw as the financial enslavement of artists.

This anger and frustration began to become a key element of his songs. Interestingly enough,contemporary alternative rock and hip-hop became his primary musical focus. It all came down to Prince not using his own name anymore. I personally remember Prince appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show at the time (with then wife Mayte Garcia),and actually discussing how on a psychological level,he felt very distant from “Prince” as a personal identity. That was the framework I had to work with at the time the Emancipation album came out. This was Prince,a man freed from creative shackles.

When I actually heard the album,the most interesting part for me was that Prince’s “liberated” music actually made heavy creative concessions to smooth jazz and still hip-hop. And the frustrated lyrics remained intact. On the other hand,it was a broader mixture overall. It gave up the funk many times. And the 2nd disc of it was basically an elongated love ballad (in separate parts) to Mayte. So to me,Emancipation is one part the sound of freedom and another the sound of musical concessions.  Still a now unpublished Amazon review of mine on the album went into more depth than even that.


Probably the most significant aspect of this album was that it was the very first brand new Prince album I purchased after becoming a huge admirer of his work. There was a lot of publicity about this album when it came out. The people who I talked to in record stores at the time would often says things to the affect of “this is going to be the crowning achievement of Prince’s career” and so on. At the time? I wasn’t aware of the intense level of idolatry of Prince’s musical abilities that might’ve been behind a lot of this.

All I did know is that Prince was leaving behind Warner Bros. and launching his NPG Records.beginning his unshackling from the record company burdens he’d been dealing with for the past several years. I also wasn’t aware that any and all musical expectations were simply not part of the game when understanding Prince. And while I had mine? This,my second actual full listening to this since it came out,has really helped to resolve my views on his era of his creative output.

“Jam Of The Year” opens with a strong jazz/funk/hip-hop number-full of muted trumpet and piano. “Right Back Here In My Arms”,the Ice Cube collaboration of “Mr.Happy”,”Joint 2 Joint”,”Da Da Da” and in particular “Email” all follow that hip-hop style sound. On the other hand “Get Your Groove On”,the JB horn styled “We Gets Up”,the synth bass driven groove of “Sex In The Summer”-with it’s percussion effect from he and then wife Mayte’s baby’s ultrasound and the stomping,bass heavy title track represent the strongest funk element of the album.

The hip-hop oriented “Slave” and “Face Down” as well as the bumping bass/acoustic guitar driven pop/rock ballad “White Mansion” all discuss the consequences of his liberation from his recording contract. “Betcha By Golly Wow”,”I Can’t Make You Love Me”,”One Kiss At A Time”,Soul Sanctuary”,Curious Child”,”Dreamin’ Bout You”,”Let’s Have A Baby”,Savior”,”The Plain”,”Friend,Lover,Sister,Mother/Wife”,”La La Means I Love You”,”One Of Us” and “The Love We Make” are all powerful,often epic soul ballads.

“New World” marks something a return to his original Minneapolis sound with it’s brittle,stripped down synth driven dance/funk groove. The one man band rhythm section of “Courtin’ Time” and my favorite number here “Sleep Around” are both highly kinetic big band jazz oriented pieces-the latter what I’d describe as “horn house” I suppose.

“Style” is the best of the jazz/hip-hop numbers here-with it’s descriptions of different (often humorous,always clever) actions Prince equates with “style being the second cousin to class”. “The Human Body” has a Hi NRG industrial dance sound while “My Computer” is a gurgling synth jazzy/funk/fusion mid tempo piece. The acoustic folk based “The Holy River” and the uptempo guitar driven “D***ed If Eye Do” are both the rockier numbers here.

36 songs over a 3 CD set that clocks in at exactly 3 hours makes this a lot of music. There were and still are many mysteries regarding the origins of what’s on this album. For me? It’s surprisingly ballad heavy. Functioning as something of a love ballad to his then wife. The uptempo songs here also tend to follow the angry hip-hop/funk approach of a lot of his early/mid 90’s work. Not only is it clear the man was still very angry at record companies.

But the lyrics also showcase a burgeoning paranoia. With numerous references to mid 90’s period conspiracy theories such as the anti vaccination and “cows are for calves” anti diary movements. When he turns up the funk however? The groove is often heavy and horn filled. Even with his likable embrace of the jazz/hop hybrid here as well. That gives him and the ever expanding NPG to really stretch their instrumental muscles with phat bass lines,horn charts and rhythms. Certainly some areas of this album are very dated and stereotypical for it’s era. Yet it’s still likely Prince’s strongest overall release of the 1990’s.


A little healthy self criticism reveals that I have no great love for musicians who embrace negative ideas (or even musical styles that happen to be trendy at the moment) simply to maintain their popularity. And do actually think Prince did that to a tiny degree on Emancipation.  But Prince never was a particularly commercial minded artist either. As a musician,his first concern seemed to generally be about how new ideas would fit into his creative ethic. At the end of the day,its an album with many songs that maintain their strong grooves. And others that are simply indelibly linked to its time.

Perhaps one reason for why this and much of Prince’s 90’s output didn’t age as well was the general musical atmosphere of the day. When Prince first emerged as a major star in the 80’s,he was essentially spicing up a 60’s/70’s style funk-rock framework with newer instruments. But with that expansive musical period as his base,there was stronger room for flight. By the early/mid 90’s,Prince was starting to pre program more and more of his rhythms. So that left some of his music of the day having little base at all. Still, Emancipation showcased Prince on a strong path to even bigger and better musical things.

 

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Filed under 1990s, Amazon.com, classic albums, Emancipation, hip-hop funk, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Music Reviewing, NPG Records, O(+>, Prince, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince

‘Word Up’@30: Cameo Tell Us What’s The Word!

Word Up!

Cameo and “Word Up” (as a song) in general have been a consistent point of discussion between myself and Henrique Hopkins over the years. At this point,my primary outlet for writing about music was through Amazon.com’s customer reviews. For a number of reasons,my forum or music based writing became based more around my WordPress blogs such as Andresmusictalk. So much of my opinion went into my currently unpublished Amazon.com review of the Word Up album itself. So over three months after its 30th anniversary,here’s my personal take on Cameo’s major funk crossover album from 1986.


Truth be told? This album probably represented the very first funk by a contemporary artist I ever heard. Keep in mind it was when it came out. And at the time I had no idea what a musical genre (let alone funk) even was. The music of Cameo has always had a strong attraction to me ever since-likely due to that core musical memory. Historically for Cameo,this was an interesting time. Starting with 1984’s She’s Strange,Cameo pared down to a trio of three members in bandleader/founder Larry Blackmon on lead vocals and bass with Nathan Leftenant and Tomi Jenkins as vocalists.

Charlie Singleton left the band functionally to start a solo career. Yet the deepest thing about that was that Charlie,along with other members of the band,didn’t leave completely. He,along with session musicians such as the Brecker brothers remained behind on this album which,as it were wound up being their iconic breakthrough album commercially-at least as far as pop char success was concerned.

The title song and “Candy” are of course the signature mid 80’s Cameo sound-stripped down funk sound,slap bass the texture of thick liquid. Another element that makes them stand out is the strong percussion breaks and Michael Brecker’s sax solo on “Candy”-making for one of the strongest rhythmic patterns of mid 80’s hard funk. “Back And Forth” is a straighter dance/funk groove that’s highly catchy and melodic. It seems like a naked funk number,but the arrangement is filled with layers of dreamy synthesizers as well.

It was a full sound creeping up from behind rather than immediately out front. “She’s Mind” is the one slow jam here-really more mid tempo boogie with an appropriately jazzy pop sense of song craft showcasing what terrific songwriters Cameo were. “She’s Mine”,a drum beat oriented hip-hop/funk hybrid as well as the furious live band oriented funk of “Fast,Fierce & Funny” and “You Can Have The World” are all brightly composed and heavily rhythmic grooves-all focusing on the theme of materialistically demanding women that was a mainstay for Cameo throughout the years.

Many “jam fans” who have an intense dislike for the music of the first half of the 1980’s refer to the period in which this album came out as a rebirth of the funk. As soon as James Brown hit the airwaves with “Living In America”,music that was strongly linked with classic funk began to be innovated on. That also found itself spreading into the next generation of hip-hop as well-especially as the functional original funk bands who didn’t have the commercial success of Cameo abandoned the idea of radio play and musical commerce.

So the “nu funk” as it were,and the generation of hip-hop that both inspired it and was inspired by it was all part of the culture from which this album came. It would seem looking back that no one was particularly self conscious about this burst of funk creativity. It seemed to be a degree of life breathed into the “number one funk” aestetic of the 60’s and 70’s-where music that celebrated advanced rhythmic ideas and lyrical wit in a contemporary context could flourish. This album is one of the many that really captures that spirit. And reminds any cynic who thinks that funk is dead that,when it seems to begone,it can survive and (in cases such as this) be enormously successful as well.


One of the ideas I had that sprang up from writing this review was about the type of funk that is becoming successful today. Songs such as “Uptown Funk” (the “Word Up” of 2014/2015 in terms of commercial success in many ways) are generally inspired by the synth based style of 80’s funk. Word Up,as both a song and an album,was a whole other thing though. The slap bass and the slow,hard hitting beats that are seldom heard in modern funk really define this album through and through. Still,it not only represents a major crossover triumph for Cameo but hard funk in the 1980’s in general.

 

 

 

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Filed under 1986, Amazon.com, Cameo, Charlie Singleton, classic albums, Larry Blackmon, Michael Brecker, Music Reviewing, Nathan Leftenant, Randy Brecker, Saxophone, slap bass, synth funk, Tomi Jenkins, trumpet, Word Up

Andre’s Amazon Archive: ‘Nard’ by Bernard Wright (1981)

'Nard

After hearing “‘Nard” the one definitive impression you’ll have is that New York pianist Bernard Wright has a large number of musical influences ranging from Herbie Hancock,George Duke,Lenny White and of course Dave Grusin (his producer) and Miles Davis.But one thing the 16 year old musician does very well is find unique and creative ways of gathering his influences into his own special kind of musical sound.

Released on vinyl in 1981 on GRP “‘Nard” is at it’s core a funk-jazz album,but all that means is that the backup has a rhythmic R&B style over which Wright plays very memorable and often improvised solo’s on his acoustic piano,Fender Rhodes and sometimes the occasional synthesizer.But only on the spiky funk of “Just Chillin’ Out” and “We’re Just The Band” do synths play that big a part.

“Master Rocker”,”Spinnin'”,”Firebolt Hustle” and the jamming “Bread Sandwiches” are all based on a chunky backup of guitars,rhythms and often sudden melodic exchanges,that plus the comically absurd vocals of “Haboglabotribin'” brings up the George Duke connection.The general sound (especially on the one ballad in Weldon Irvine’s “Music Is The Key” showcases Bernard Wright as an artist with a firmly established 1970’s-based sound..

The electronic and glossy sheen of 1980’s style jazz-funk an R&B in general are not to be found in huge doses on ‘Nard’.But thanks I’m sure to poor promotion on GRP’s part this album (and artist in general) have gone almost forgotten until this CD reissue.I brought it only on customer recommendation and I couldn’t be more pleased with what I heard.And despite it’s often hefty price tag ‘Nard’ will be more then worth the investment.I recommend it not only as an ear pleasing guidebook for other aspiring young musicians but to any fan of late 70’s/early 80’s transitional jazz-funk in general.

Originally Posted On November 15th,2004

Link To Original Review Here!

 

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Filed under 1980's, Amazon.com, Bernard Wright, Dave Grusin, Fender Rhodes, GRP Records, jazz funk, Music Reviewing, piano, synthesizer

Leon Russell: 1942-2016-Thank You 4 Your Service,Leon!

Stop All That Jazz

Leon Russell had an extremely good early 70’s. Not only did he release a series of highly well received albums but he would collaborate with George Harrison and Bob Dylan on Concert for Bangladesh in 1972. The same year he wrote “This Masquerade”,a song which would several years later become a huge hit for George Benson. Leon,an Oklahoma native had a musical sound that was almost impossible to classify. There was a very heavy country/blues component to his sound. But he is also clearly a part of the singer-songwriter era.

And he is always open about expressing the strong jazz and soul aspects of his sound. On earlier albums it was that country-blues side of him that took presidents for the most part. For this 1974 album,Leon began using synthesizers in his music. He also bought in a trio of brothers named Ronnie,Robert and Charlie Wilson from Tulsa to back him up. These brothers than called themselves the Greenwood,Archer & Pine Band. Later this would be abbreviated into The Gap Band. This albums serves as their introduction to the world. And that’s fitting since it’s the beginning of an important music breakthrough for Leon himself.

The title of this album is not meant ironically since it is in fact a very jazz oriented album. But since this is Leon Russell we’re talking about here. He starts out the album with a stomping New Orleans style R&B version of “If I Were A Carpenter”. That particular side of this album stays with him on originals such as “Leaving Whipporwhill” and “Working Girl”. On “Smashed” this very pointed jazzy soul groove comes out of this sound once the Wilson’s begin participating. This is one of the albums strongest numbers. That plus a very like minded soul-jazz version of “Spanish Harlem”,filled with Ronnie Wilson’s soulful horn charts and the appropriate dash of Latin percussion.

“Streakers Ball” blends a bit of a stronger,funkier groove into this sound with the synthesizers providing some otherworldly electronic orchestral touches to the almost countrified soul groove. Now in terms of serious funk there’s a version of Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown”. It’s a deep,uptempo,heavy bass and drum led funk march. With the Charlie Wilson’s vocal harmonies on full display the song is not quite full funk,or full blues or full gospel. But a hybrid strung together of the most powerful elements of all three. It’s unlike any other song I have heard before really. Closest comparison would be something like Rose Royce’s “First Come,First Served”.

The album ends with “Mona Lisa Smile” and the title song. Both are easy swinging jazz numbers,the latter with this heavy southern soul chorus blended in for good measure. The bonus tracks are some lush country-western takes on “Wild Horses” and a ho down of “Wabash Cannonball” sung with Willie Nelson. Especially with the bonus tracks,Leon Russell is out to do a lot of different things on this album. And he does. What keeps it from being a sloppy mess is that there is one strong unifying focus to everything on this album: that not so simple little factor of soul.

It’s part of everything from Leon’s…unique vocal style (an odd combination of Willie Nelson and Dr.John in a way) to the very way in which he composes,produces and arranges music. This album was recorded deep in the middle of what I will refer to as the funk era. And while it’s not an album defined by one particular genre,including funk,that particular musical era and the atmosphere it produced is evident from the very beginning of this album to the very end.
After hearing it,and it’s a very very difficult CD to track down I’ll tell you that,I have some trouble understanding why it’s not better liked than it is. It’s a carnival tent show of songs with a groove and directly in the eye of the groove. And the melodies and instrumentation are absolutely enchanting. It’s one of Leon Russell’s most musically and creatively potent works I’ve ever heard.

Will O' The Wisp

Now this album is not my introduction to the music of Leon Russel but it is as far as full length albums and,as far as I’m concerned there’s absolutely no disappointments to be heard. Now just to go back a bit to another point I made with a friend that,if one is looking for it you can easily find great funk in any aisle of a record store/department. It was a genre that consistently bled into rock,jazz,blues and during the mid 70’s the genre of funk was helping so much music to bleed together that it all came together (much as jazz’s creation from the outside) into a tasty musical gumbo with a lot of diverse herbs and spices of sound.

It’s not surprising with the Wilson Brothers’ (known today as The Gap Band) appearance on Leon’s previous album Stop All That Jazz that this was going to be the direction his music would continue to take and it did. The music on this album is a decidedly southern flavored blend of jazz,funk,country-soul,blues and excellent pop songwriting with some wonderfully fluid piano playing,occasional tasty sax riff and some wonderfully textural use of synthesizers. Some heavy duty funk such as “Little Hideaway”,”Make You Feel Good”,”Down On The Deep River” and the tasty groove of “Bluebird” really bring all of this together.

In addition all of these songs showcase the close back round harmonies of Mary McCreary,whose presence in both Leon’s music and life would grow only by leaps and bounds in the very short future. When you get to the elongated,percussive “Can’t Get Over Losing You”,”My Father’s Shoes”,”Stay Away From Sad Songs” and the tropically inclined harmonies of “Back To The Island” slow the funk down to a breath taking slow crawl in which the groove really has a chance to burn really hard.

Even though Leon was from Oklahoma and not New Orleans his music came out of a similarly torrid spirit as Dr.John,Allen Toussaint and The Meters and even though he never exactly gained the same type of recognition as any of those people this along with a handful of other excellent recordings Leon Russell made during his prime years would certainly put him easily in the same league.

 

Wedding Album

After the release of his excellent Will O’ the Wisp Leon Russell wed his backup singer Mary McCreary and the pair commemorated the event with a duet album between the two of them. One of the most exciting parts of the album is not only do the two share vocals on this album but Mary herself  a very active participant in this music with her new husband,playing synthesizer and percussion quite often and creating these beautifully elaborate choruses of back round vocals as well as her leads. The spirit of sharing and mutual cooperation,an integral component of any marriage lends itself here as a musical element as well.

Musically this album embraces styles Leon always had in his music as this is a full out funk-soul/R&B album with the textural synthesizers are enlarged in number,mixed far higher in the music and the melodic/harmonic arrangements of the music are more complex and elaborate. These songs are not in fact all too separated from what you might find on a Stevie Wonder,Smokey Robinson or Ashford & Simpson recordings of the period. The introductory song,the romantic “Rainbow In Your Eyes” is one of the very strongest and romantic songs Leon ever wrote.

The melodic keyboard/synth sound carries the song along with the intricate melody and it was so strong Al Jarreau covered the song very quickly on his album Glow of the same year,also opening the album with that song as well. The swelling “Love’s Supposed To Be That Way”,the cosmic sounding “Fantasy”,”Satisfy You” and “You Are On My Mind” all maintain the exact same level of quality and dynamic arrangements. Mary’s elastic,powerful vocalizing is a great combo with Leon’s tougher,rubbery singing style and the way they work them into the songs is just so wonderful to behold.

Unlike a lot of albums made after a musician gets married the intensity of the music actually increased in this case,largely because the couple were involved in making music and were already very experienced at doing so. “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)” gets down into a heavy honky tonk/funk groove with Leon and Mary trading off some very meaty lyrics. On the midtempo “Quiet Nights” and “Windsong” the jazziness really gets going in the music. I would never call these songs sappy at all;they are beautifully cool and reflective in flavor and give both the music and vocals a chance to glide across each other smoothly.

“Daylight” closes the album again on a more uptempo melodic funk not. Considering it’s celebratory title this album fully lives up to it’s ambitions and concept in every way and upon hearing it I am very surprised it wasn’t more popular in it’s day than it was. Still it’s wonderful to have this very unsung and buried 70’s funk/soul masterpiece available (thanks to Wounded Bird again) and give modern listeners a chance to hear it with remastered sound and just the plain dignity of having it around again.

Leon and Mary Russell’s debut album together Wedding Album was a personal and musical triumph for everyone involved. So it seemed obvious that a fairly immediate follow up album was in order and they delivered one. At the very same time this is a completely different musical experience. Mary’s participation on this album on every front is somewhat played down as Leon gets a bit more involved. There’s more of a similarity to his earlier solo albums in parts and generally speaking is a mix of tunes similar in flavor to their debut album and some that follow Leon’s own musical lead a bit more.

“Easy Love” and the title song bare the most similarity to the previous album as somewhat uptempo soul/funk but the groove is a lot slicker and the synthesizer arrangements are a lot less thick overall. Still the music on these songs is every bit as brilliantly written as before. A good number of these songs such as “Joyful Noise”,”Now Now Boogie”,”Say You Will” and “Hold On To This Feeling” have a more organic,chunky honky tonk style funk groove more in keeping with some of the earlier Leon Russell solo albums and showcasing the band more than the individual styles of himself and Mary.

This album was released the same year as Saturday Night Fever so some of the style of disco does show up on a few of these tracks. Actually the ones that do;”Love Crazy” and “Love Is In Your Eyes” are harder edged disco-funk flavor tunes with some chunky,heavily processed Clavinet’s and some nasty rhythmic exchanges. The swoony romanticism of the previous album is replaced by a heavier sensual passion on this album and these two cuts display that more than others.

The last tune on the album features Mary the most on the somewhat psychedelisized Caribbean groove of “Island In The Sun”. As with the previous album there really are no bad cuts at all on this album. They’re all different though and that can be a wonderful thing often enough. In this case the pair require a cohesive musical concept to be their very best and this album doesn’t really possess that kind of cohesiveness so it’s only one star less powerful than the previous album.

 

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Filed under 1970's, country/soul, Funk, funky soul, Gap Band, Leon Russell, Mary McCreary, Music Reviewing

Andre’s Amazon Archive: ‘Changes’ by Charles Bradley

About five years ago,I got seriously into the whole Daptone label music scene. The whole theme they had was very authentically retro. It wasn’t just the instrumental style of the music that came out of it. It was the sound of the recordings,even the old school film based photographic style of cover art. Charles Bradley is their key male solo artist. And his chief musical influence was James Brown-even working part time impersonating the man. As for me I have his first two albums. And was very excited to pick up his third when it came out. Again,there’s no disappointment.

The album opens with a partially spoken word,organ/piano based version of “God Bless America” where Bradly discussed the pros and cons of being black in this country. “Good To Be Back Home” is stomping,bluesy funk with phat electric guitar and horn accents throughout. “Nobody But You”,the title song,”Crazy For Your Love” and the closer “Slow Love” are all reverbed guitar heavy ballads.

“Ain’t Gonna Give You Up” is a thick,slow deep funk groove with a bee like synthesizer buzzing. “Things We Do For Love” is a brightly melodic uptempo gospel/soul number filled with multiple backup singers and “You Think I Don’t Know (But I Know” has the same vibe about it. “Change For The World” is an brief late 60’s/early 70’s Ike Hayes like psychedelic funk message song warning about the revival of segregationist racial behavior.

In a lot of ways,this might just be the very best album Charles Bradley has made thus far. The backup instrumentation of instrumentals such as the Budos Band provide a sound that is squarely in both the deep Southern soul and psychedelic funk sound of the late 60’s. The vocals and arrangements are full of enormous drama as well. Bradley’s voice,especially on his impassioned howls,are echoed intensely throughout nearly every song here. With a large focus on uptempo songs,this really brings out the full power of what this artist has had to offer up musically from his very outset.

Originally posted on April 8th,2016

Link to original review here!

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Filed under 2016, Amazon.com, Budos Band, Charles Bradley, Dap Tone, Funk, funk albums, funky soul, Music Reviewing, new music