Tag Archives: 1987

‘Kick’ At 30: INXS Get A New Sensation

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INXS had an amazing period of growth in the 1980’s. In the first couple of years of the decade, the Australian band were a hard touring post punk/new wave outfit. By 1984’s The Swing, the sound of songs such as the hit “Original Sin” got the heavy funk treatment from the production of Nile Rodgers. From that point on, INXS would be a funk/rock powerhouse. Their songs punctuated by an equal combination of big guitars, grooving horns and bass lines and the versatile, soulful voice of its late lead singer Michael Hutchence. This all came to a head 30 years ago today with the release of Kick.

Kick was part of a massive revival of funk/soul sounds in pop music. Whereas more straight ahead guitar rock had been the dominating force during the earlier part of the decade. In fact, the first time I heard of INXS was the video for the song “Need You Tonight”, whose visuals abstract on the cover art for the album itself.  Their grooving sound and extroverted visual presence made this quite an experience for me. Now I’ve heard the entire Kick album for the first time all the way through. And am going to share with you my observations of it-largely from a funk and soul based perspective.

“Guns In The Sky” starts off the album with pounding, spare drums and brittle lead rock guitar of the Farriss brothers Jon, Andrew and Tim. This is matched with lyrics that lashes out against  people’s obsessions with fire arms.  “New Sensation” is a rhythm guitar fueled fusion of funk and rock-especially its horn fueled chorus. As my boyfriend Scott originally pointed out, there is a banjo (or a very banjo like guitar sound) playing just under the rhythm guitar lick.  “Devil Inside” starts out with a round percussion based sound-with mild rhythm guitar and bass accents of Garry Gary Beers

“Devil Inside” also gradually mutates heavier guitars kick in for a slinky rocker-the hardest edged rock piece on the album. And also the longest song on the album.  “Need You Tonight” is built around stripped down “naked funk” as well as call and response vocals of course. That segues without a break into the hip-hop style drum based number-with jazzy phrased synth pads in the back round while Hutchence’s vocal arrangement is structurally similar to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. On this song however, the lyrics focus squarely on the racially unjust South African apartheid system.

“Tiny Daggers” is a very Stonsey slower 12 bar blues number, with a rocky twist. Also a soul-pop melody on the chorus. In terms of totally melding a rock soloing attitude with a funk rhythm section, “Wild Life” and “Calling On Nations” pull off the fusion without a hitch- in a similar manner to “New Sensation” from earlier in the album. The shuffling “Mystify” and the title track both have mid 60’s “rock ‘n soul” flavors to them-with the sax of Kirk Pengilly’s honking solos. “Never Tear Us Apart”, the albums lone ballad, is an update of the 6/8 time 60’s soul ballad-featuring string and another Pengilly sax solo.

“Tiny Daggers” has the driving drums,melodic piano and jangling rhythm guitar of a Springsteen style heartland area rocker. Its resemblance to another hit from this era, Prince’s “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” brings out an idea I have about the album. With its dead center funk/rock fusion, which Andrew Farriss declared was always part of INXS’ sound, Kick’s dead center funk/rock fusion sound-along with its lyrical themes combining hedonism and social awareness, is something of  an integrated band equivalent to what Prince was doing with his Sign O The Times album in 1987.

Kick is an album that, having heard it all the way through, is a bit of a time capsule of that re-focusing of pop/rock music towards funk and soul was going by 87. Some of the songs are more stronger funk based, others are more straight rockers, and others totally combine them together.  It also went right along with the momentum INXS themselves were on with funk/soul based pop hits like “What You Need” and the aforementioned “Original Sin”.  INXS’s own stylistic trajectory matching up with the times goes with has made Kick so enduring and iconic for late 80’s funk and pop/rock.

 

 

 

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Swing Out Sister: “Blue Mood” by Swing Out Sister

Swing Out Sister began life as a UK trio in 1985. This consisted of keyboardist Andy Connell, drummer Martin Jackson and lead singer Corinne Drewery. While both Connell and Jackson had been in the bands A Certain Ratio and Magazine prior to this point, Drewery came from the world of glamour-being a fashion designer and model. This likely helped with their suave image. It was a member of another group called 52 Street, Diane Charlemagne. Connell’s association with her label Factory helped get the band signed.  Charlemagne sang on Swing Out Sister’s original demos as well.

The bands debut album Its Better To Travel came out in the spring of 1987. Its jazzy,horn fueled and very catchy debut sing “Breakout” had become a major UK hit in the autumn and early winter of 1986. It happened exactly a year later in the US of course. It was actually only several years ago that I picked up the record on CD. Did so because,while vinyl copies were available to me, the CD contained four bonus tracks. Heard “Breakout” while growing up. And enjoyment of that groove helped me to appreciate another song on the album-their non charting debut single from 1985 called “Blue Mood”.

A theatrical,orchestral crescendo beings the song. Then the popping synth bass line pops in-along with the digital percussion that is soon joined by the electro funk styled drum machine. Bursts of rhythm guitar and MIDI horns leap in and out of the mix on the refrains. For the chorus, the chord changes key to a jazzy,keyboard based melody-coming after a leaner B section of the refrain. There is a bridge of sorts that showcases a frenetic rhythm guitar playing on where the vocal line. An extended chorus closes out the song until it all fades out.

“Blue Mood” combines a number of musical threads of the mid/late 80’s. The base of it comes out of the post disco, techno based club music.  Rhythmically however, the song is structured more like an Afro-Latin jazz funk number. Tons big,bouncy percussion and freestyle drums. Accordingly, the melody is strongly based in jazz as well. It goes right in with the jazzier end of the post disco UK club scene-not dissimilar to the work of Basia/Matt Bianco in that regard. Its the emphasis on groove,from both the groove and the singer, that make this song do distinctive for Swing Out Sister.

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‘Faith’ In Its 30th Year: George Michael Goes Solo!

 

George Michael’s solo debut album Faith won’t officially turn 30 for another couple of months. Just couldn’t wait to discuss this particular album. It came along during that 1986-1988 time period that my friend Henrique and I often discussed. It was a period where rock and pop artists could again integrate elements of funk and soul into their music. Where guitar based rock across entire albums was no longer the standard. Danceable,funky music was making a huge comeback in 1987 in particular. And George Michael began his solo career right in that creative frame of mind.

For his part, George Michael basically made a move that would follow onto what Justin Timberlake would do 15 years later: leave a group that was popular with the teen set and emerge with a rather adult solo album. And even Don, the owner of the local record store in Bangor Maine called Dr. Records praised Faith as the very finest album George Michael made. I also have personal memories connected to it-especially seeing its video clips as part of the Friday Night Videos TV magazine program. What I wanted to present here today is a review I wrote on Amazon.com for the album six years ago.


Interesting how you can like a piece of music on one level but have it grow on you in totally different ways. Of course one of the things that has made this album special to me is how it’s stood the passage of time. Didn’t seem that way living through it but the late 1980’s were actually a pretty divided time in terms of pop music. There was a lot of discontentment at how things were going,in terms of popularity versus creativity,that would only really come to the surface years later.

In terms of where George Michael stood at this point,Wham! had gone out on one final tour following their last release Music From the Edge of Heaven and it was time for George to go out on his own. It had been coming for some time. In fact many contend that Wham! owes every single bit of it’s musical potency to his talent. Where George’s talents played an enormous part in it,there was an actual band involved and Andrew Ridgley who was perceived more as pure eye candy.

It was mostly teen idol folly to a degree. But the talent was there in George. So where exactly was he going to take it the first time out? The title song itself and it’s video,sporting George playing a mean rockabilly in leather and jeans is a great,soulful rocker. An obvious hit. Same goes for the slower “Father Figure” with it’s mixture of Eastern melodies,gospel choirs and twisted sexual fantasy.

What makes this album most notable to me is even on those,but more for the rest of the album it totally rejects the fluffier pop melodies on Wham!’s previous two albums in favor of extending more on the sound of the debut album Fantastic. In short this finds it’s success on all accounts by being a very muscular contemporary soul/funk album. The surprisingly un-commercial 9+ minute hit “I Want Your Sex” is a great example.

Starting as stripped down Minneapolis type funk it goes into this live band funk part,complete with a hot horn section. “One More Try” is a spare ballad in the spirit of “A Different Corner” from that final Wham! album. “Hard Day” gets into some heavy old school hip-hop/80’s funk grooves. “Hand To Mouth” tells a compelling street corner story with a breezier funky soul dance type rhythm. “Look At Your Hands” comes to terms with a vibrant rock and soul type number.

On “Monkey”,George deals with his lovers drug problems (so it would seem) over some heavy 80’s Cameo type funk. “Kissing A Fool” is a very 50’s style soul ballad,in the spirit of Ray Charles using something jazz oriented instrumentation. A modern day standard,if you will. There’s a heavy hip-hop/scratch influenced Shep Pettibone remix of “Hard Day” here too as well as “A Last Request” which,listed as “I Want Your Sex Part 3” is an electronic percussive Brit-Funk type number.

One of my favorites here really. So it was a massive hit and likely outsold Wham!’s three records combined. Was it a hit parade? Not really. This is actually a very cohesive album and,although not obviously conceptual follows a loose theme of adult realizations of poverty,romance and sexuality. In a lot of ways it lays a lot of hardness down too,anticipating much of what would happen in the next decade.

Even though a variety of styles are presented this is also in essence a funk/soul album. That has always been George Michael’s true colors when you get right down to it. And on every song here it gives it every single chance he can. Much to the delight of people like me who listen to it. One of a number of excellent AND popular musical moments of 1987!


Faith is an album that painted George Michael as an artist who was not only extremely diverse in his grooves. But also did musical diversity well. And always kept his distinctive flavor intact. His recording career would actually be fairly sporadic after this, as he became involved in elongated record company disputes. And its no lie that George Michael did some amazing albums during the 90’s as well. It hasn’t been a year since his passing yet. And as with Prince, its taking its time feeling real. Yet Faith, with all its energy and high funkativity, is an album that never seems to stop feeling real.

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Yo! Bum Rush The Show At 30: Public Enemy #1!

Public Enemy have been this largely funk/soul/disco/jazz themed blog’s main reference point when it comes to hip-hop. Of course, that’s largely because of my long history with the band. Not to mention them being one of a handful of key topics between myself and blog consultant Henrique Hopkins. As much as black American music is always a forward thinking and moving creative endeavor, its might be fitting seven months after its official anniversary to explore three decades of American music dealing with the presence of Public Enemy’s debut album Yo! Bum Rush The Show.


Being someone born very directly into the 80’s? My perception of hip-hop (or rap as I’d be inclined to call it at the time) is that there were at least two evolutionary stages in the music before the middle of the decade. There was the late 70’s funk/disco oriented of Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow. And than you had the synth-electro oriented approach of Afrikka Bambaatta’s & The Soul Sonic Force. While Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five straddled both approaches.

Than along came Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin’s Def Jam. And the world was introduced to the likes of Run DMC, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. Somewhere in that mix? Rap that was overtly sociopolitical hadn’t been greatly represented since the Furious Five’s The Message. Than out of NYC and onto Def Jam came Public Enemy,a hip-hop collective led by turntablist Terminator X and MC’s Flava Flav and group leader Chuck D.

“You’re Gonna Get Yours” starts out the album with a grooving,bass/guitar riff led jam. The song I find most fascinating here is “Sophisticated Bitch”. It is a slow burning groove telling the story of a lady unknowingly prostituting herself-set to the funky rock-guitar riffing solos of Defunkt’s/Black Rock Coalition’s Vernon Reid re-creating the bass riff from Heatwave’s hit “The Groove Line”. “Timebomb” is another extremely hard grooving number.

Interestingly enough,numbers such as “Miuzi Weighs A Ton”,”Too Much Posse”, “Rightstarter”,”Public Enemy#1″,”MPE”,the title song,”Raise The Roof”,”Megablast” and “Terminator X Speaks With His Hands” are all much more in the stripped down,808 drum machine led hip-hop vein Def Jam was championing at the time. What really bought Public Enemy out into the fore was their authoritative rap delivery on the part of everyone,as well as the more aggressive stance of the sound. Which brings me to the main distinctive quality PE had right from the start.

Throughout this album? Chuck D and company were beginning to take a sociopolitical stance that was a bit more direct and specific than anyone in hip-hop had so far. These raps are less narrative stories to illustrate a certain theme. But are more declarations of their motivations. Very much a thematic disciple of Black Power icons such as Malcolm X,Huey Newton and especially musical icon James Brown,Chuck D makes it clear he wants to bring that sense of black empowerment into his type of hip-hop.

On this album? It came off as somewhat implied message wise because PE hadn’t fully developed their distinct musical sound when they were making this album. In a sense because of that? It might be the most important album they made,because it showcased the embryo of a sound that,without the public being fully aware of it coming perhaps,was about to be unleashed by Public Enemy onto the world of hip-hop and music in general.


One of the major points brought up after this Amazon.com review I did four years ago, again with Henrique, was Yo! Bum Rush The Show‘s relationship with the intentions of the Def Jam label’s founders. This occurred in the mid 1980’s, when American pop music charts and MTV were really pushing white rock artists/bands over any music that came from black American culture. That means that, especially with rap/rock crossover’s such as the Beastie Boys and Run DMC’s duet with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way”, that Russell and Rick desired Def Jam’s style of hip-hop to appeal to a young rock audience.

Public Enemy really changed that perception of Def Jam releases. As with any artist in any genre, their debut did the need for more growth. And as most PE admirers would know, this growth occurred very quickly. The group were at this time a five piece band that included live bass/guitar as well as DJ Terminator X. And also a strong rebirth of the black American political consciousness of the 1960’s that asked black people to take care of themselves as people. This pro black,anti self destruction message illustrated everything that has come to represent Public Enemy in the last 30 years.

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After Dark At 30: Ray Parker’s Fourth Official Solo Album Gets Some Love From Going Back To The Past

After Dark image.jpg

After the very Minneapolis dance/funk influenced Sex And The Single Man Ray Parker Jr was very well aware of the changing tide in the R&B world during the latter half of the 80’s. The success of Anita Baker and Gregory Abbot was showcasing urban music’s move again back into the relm of a more adult jazz-pop frame of mind. At the same time this was mixed with some of the live/electronic rhythmic elements of boogie funk as well.

This late 80’s urban sound was great news for Ray Parker Jr. Sometimes thought of as the purveyor of almost novelty funk for teenagers,as a lyricist Ray did possess that Smokey Robinson sense of wordplay and a refreshingly witty plain spokenness. Not to mention the man was one serious guitar player. On this album,he delivered on one of his most significant and vital musical statements of a very successful decade for him.

“I Don’t Think That Man Should Sleep Alone” is a wonderful hit,an honest lyric on male vulnerability with some thickly layered keyboards playing some mood and complex jazzy chords that are also melodic. It’s definitely a highlight of Ray’s career. The ballads here “Over You” with Natalie Cole and “The Past” are unlike any of Ray’s earlier ballads;fully fleshed out and arranged numbers with very well done orchestrations. The uptempo numbers are some of the most funky and varied of his career.

“Lovin’ You” and “You Make My Nature Dance” are both thick grooves with a lot of bottom and some excellent electronic percussion effects. “Perfect Lovers” makes even better use of that as the groove kind of rolls right along with similar rhythmic patterns. “After Midnight”,harmonically similar to Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies” is an instrumental with a beautiful soul jazz solo from Parker.

On “You Shoulda Kept A Spare” he lets his inner Anita Baker shine with powerful sax from Gerald Albright and another example of his wit and worldly lyrics.  “I Love Your Daughter” is a somewhat more conversational number reference that..certain little hook that I noticed Ray has present on every album at least once since it first appeared on 1980’s “For Those Who Like To Groove”. The title track that concludes the album is a perfect summation of everything on here.

It’s got a hard funk groove,a mean mean bass/guitar line and great wordplay likening a hidden affair to mechanical repair work. Without any bias this is musically one of Ray Parker’s finest and most consistent solo album. Because it was released during the 1980,it might not be a bad full length album for anyone only aware of Ray Parker Jr’s singles. In terms of full lengths,this might actually be his very best release.

*This is take from my Amazon.com review of this album posted there on July 8th,2012

 

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Introducing The Hard Line At 30: Terence Trent D’Arby Pointing The Way To Something Different

Terence Trent D’Arby first entered my life at the age of 8. One day while listening to the radio,this new song was played. Something about it (perhaps the melody) had me thinking it was a Stevie Wonder song. The voice was different however. It was a couple of weeks later that the video for the song premiered on Friday Night Videos. That’s when it was announced to me who had done this song. D’Arby goes by the name Sananda Francesco Maitreya today. But his debut as a whole inspired this review from me on Amazon.com several years ago.


Honestly for a number of reasons I don’t feel Terence Trent D’Arby ever fully got the due he deserved as a distinctive talent. Even from his own mouth,from the very beginning too many comparisons were made and as we all know that can make or break an artist with something new and vital to say. The most obvious of these were Prince,being the one similarity they had in common was the fact that they were both difficult to classify. But the fact is,TTD’s heavy self promotion at the time of this album he did in fact have a very unique of his own.

At the same time comparisons don’t even apply. His sound,at least on this album isn’t as instrumentally quirky or irreverent as anything that would come out of Prince. The music on this album actually very slickly produced late 80’s…..trans continental soul I suppose. Either way you look at it there’s a lot more gloss to this than anything Prince released during this era. Now when it comes to the songwriting and arranging that’s a very different matter. Most of the songs on this album concentrate heavy on arrangements that change in the blink of an eye.

“Wishing Well”,”If You Let Me Stay” and “Rain” are all songs that make the most of this kind of modern slick psychedelic funk stew only with the rock element being either absent or not that obvious. This is also definitely an album lovers album that’s not a hit parade as much as it is a musical concept extended over many separate songs. That being said there are a lot of highlights nonetheless. “I’ll Never Turn My Back On You” explores the father/sun dynamic in a very reflective manner where “Dance Little Sister” pulls off something very close to James Brown styled funk,one place where he and Prince have a lot in common musically.

“As Yet Untitled” has TTD working his way through a very strong acapella number showing much awareness of the narrative history of his back round. Now in 1969 Michael Jackson obviously whipped the floor with the original version of Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” and TTD again reinvented it for the this new era as well,giving even a gruffer rendering than Mike did. Of course Columbia made the best possible choice when selecting singles for this album by choosing “Sign Your Name”,by all measures a uniquely arranged blend of 80’s funk and classic doo-wop.

In every measurable sense the song is a complete for bearer of the retro soul style and in many ways betters a lot of what’s done with it by reveling in,what was at the time,the present. If one enjoys a uniquely diverse collection of music within the R&B/funk style,itself already diverse in and of itself with a strong 80’s twist this album will more than suit that need.


Introducing The Hardline is an album that I came to when it was about 25 years old. The most significant thing about the album is how different it was perceived than as it might be now. With the emergence of neo/retro soul, this album seems like a beginning of a musical movement today. When it came out, it felt somewhat different than a lot of the electronic based soul and funk of the era. It was part of a more diverse array of funk/soul approaches in the late 1980’s. Now,it seems more like part of a movement. Whatever the case may be, its an album that really contributed to the soul/funk reboot of 1987.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Love Will Save The Day” by Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston became the first female artist in the US to enter the album chart at #1 30 years and two days ago. That reminded me of that element of Whitney’s success that always had me torn. Nobody can deny Whitney’s pipes. Yet even early on in her recording career, artist development on the musical level wasn’t always considered too heavily. Her output was uneven across her albums as a result. That being said, along with her huge commercial success went through the roof, some came to view her as a natural born sellout later on.

This matter led to my mother,an early fan of Whitney,basically abandoning any and all interest in her after Whitney’s self titled 1985 debut album. So it wasn’t for decades after did I go back and rediscover her second record. Whitney basically polishes up the sound of her debut album-mixing dance numbers with heavily arranged “big ballads”. There was one song on the album that instantly got my attention-both musically and lyrically. It featured jazz/funk vibraphonist Roy Ayers (a personal favorite of mine) as well. The name of the song in question was “Love Will Save The Day”.

A gated drum opens the song,after which the rhythm turns to a steady dance one accentuated by ringing Latin style bell percussion-along with a thick rhythm guitar held together by a slippery synth bass line and Pitch bent synthesizers.intro. By the refrains, that synth is replaced by one with an Asian type melody to it. On the choruses,the synths begin the match the bell like percussion more. After a few rounds of this, Roy Ayers improvises on the vocal melody right along with Whitney’s vocals on the bridge. The song then climbs up an octave for the final chorus which brings the song to a dead stop.

“Love Will Save The Day” is, to me anyway, where everyone from producer Narada Michael Walden and musical guest Roy Ayers actually seemed to understand what Whitney Houston required in an uptempo song. The base of the song is synthesized Latin freestyle, with that jazzy funk flavor on the solo.. The lyrics set up a serious of emotional situations and emotions. With Whitney offering comforting words not to “panic when you hit the danger zone”. Honestly, if Whitney’s music had forged ahead in this manner consistently? She’d probably be more of a musical icon than a mere celebrity one.

 

 

 

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Stevie Wonder At 67,’Characters’ Nearing Its 30th Anniversary

Characters

Stevie Wonder had entered the 1980’s in an interesting musical position. He began the decade on a political crusade with the late Gil Scott-Heron to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Musically however,his albums began coming fewer and farther between. Since becoming an innovative musical icon after his early/mid 70’s salad days,he was still commercially successful. But the blend of organic and electronic sounds and melodies he’d pioneered was mainstream by the early 80’s. So technically,he wasn’t considered to be so much of a musical innovator anymore.

That being said, Wonder’s songwriting approach was something very few could copy. Especially with all its jazzy complexities. Thus he began developing to the artist he is today: a man whose current music was based more on collaboration and songwriting for and with other artists. Most notably Jermaine Jackson’s “Let’s Get Serious” and Gary Byrd’s “The Crown” during the early 80’s. He only had three formal studio albums during the 80’s though. And the third of them was the 1987 album Characters. It had a home in my family’s cassette collection right when it came out. And fast entered my musical core.

Characters is an album that has garnered mix opinions from everyone from writers to critics to fans. A good deal of that has to do with it being from the late 80’s. And public opinion of changes in music during that time is a complex and controversial one. On a personal level however,its one of my very favorite albums by Stevie Wonder. It came out in a year that also included Prince’s Sign O The Times and when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out. So there was a renewed interests by soul/funk artists of making creatively and commercially successful music in what started as a rather rock based musical decade.

Now Characters is also an album that did indicate the continuing distance black American artists were having with the pop charts at the time. The Top 10 of the R&B charts in American placed the album right within it. He even did an MTV special featuring a guest appearance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to promote the album. But it landed only within the pop Top 20. Still that was enough for many people to appreciate Stevie Wonder making a new album at that time. Five years ago,I wrote a review of this album on Amazon.com going further into the albums more musical virtues.


Stevie Wonder had recorded his previous album In Square Circle in 1983 but released it in 1985. Even though its clear based on internet knowledge that Stevie didn’t write all of the songs on this particular album at the same time. On the other hand,the production was contemporary to its release. Stevie Wonder’s musical success was in a very interesting place in the late 80’s. At only a mere 37 years old Stevie,having been a child prodigy, was already a musically iconic figure before 40. Something of a modern day popular equivalent of a George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in terms of his body of musical accomplishment by this time.

He had created an entire template for funk composition in the 70’s. He was able to show the innovations of funk were not merely instrumentally challenging dance music,but could have its own style of songwriting to accompany it as well. By the 80’s,funk was changing into a more electronic style of dance music that didn’t (and still doesn’t) suit everyone’s fancy. The pop audience had also found a new darling in Michael Jackson,an artist Stevie once helped mentor. For his part Stevie seemed to have no trouble dealing with this. The R&B community still regarded him as their main man,and that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) changed. So in terms of his commercial output,on this album he went more for quality than quantity.

“You Will Know” is a beautifully dreamy mid tempo slow groove opener,with Stevie’s classic multi layered keyboards playing his complex chord structures on a song that pleas for hope among the hopeless. “Dark ‘N’ Lovely” is an intense,uptempo dance/funk piece with some heavy bass Clavinet type synthesizer work mixed with spacier electronics that reflected a theme of darker hued African American’s as being treated differently in society.

“In Your Corner” takes this modern electronic funk instrumentation on a song that reflects more the flavor of 60’s Motown-with a tale that basically picks up where “I Wish” left off:Stevie’s possible imagined (or real for all we know) life as a young adult. “With Each Beat Of My Heart” is a mostly acapella ballad,built upon some transcendent multi tracked harmonies from Stevie and him breathing in the rhythm of a heart beat itself-providing mainly piano and harmonica as the other instrumentation.

“One Of A Kind” is a deeply funky dance number,again built on dynamic harmony and Stevie’s poetically lovelorn lyrical preoccupation. “Skeletons” is a strong funk mashup of themes between “Superstition” and “Part Time Lover”-not too far in flavor from Cameo’s Word Up only a bit warmer and gentler in instrumental flavor.

“Get It” is a heavy dance/funk number-again duetting with Michael Jackson to return the favor from “Just Good Friends” on MJ’s Bad-finding the two aggressively trading off lyrics call and response. The clavinet based funk returns on the wondrously grooving “My Eyes Don’t Cry” whereas “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” marries Stevie’s electronic grooves with a heavy blues featuring a guitar solo from B.B.King playing Lucille herself.

“Crying Through The Night” is one of my own favorites here-a Latin flavored number updated from a song he recorded in the mid 70’s. The two most intriguing songs are “Galaxy Paradise”,which strongly anticipates R&B/funk’s near obsession with Arabic melodies in the 80’s funk context and “Free”,which brings to mind his Bach-styled Clavinet “classical funk” sound for some dynamic “people music”.

This album is actually one of my very favorites of Wonder’s-certainly his finest of the 1980’s for me,as well as his last release of the decade. Not only did he dip strongly into his celebration of the innovation of funk,jazz,soul and European classical that defined his blockbuster 70’s successes but also had the time to anticipate a few modern day funk/soul musical concepts along the way as well. As controversial as this might sound to some 1980’s musical naysayers,this album is easily as innovative and thrilling for its era as Songs in the Key of Life was a decade before this.


Just listening to any Stevie Wonder album,especially if someone is seriously learning about music,can be a school lesson in sound layering and composition in itself. And at the end of the day, Characters was no exception to that rule. Even myself making music on Garage Band with Apple Loops now, I find myself hearing melodic/rhythmic combinations the way Wonder might. Says a lot for Stevie Wonder’s music influencing the creativity of a non musician…sound mixer. Characters above all things showcases how no matter when he created,Stevie Wonder’s sound remained intensely vital.

 

 

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‘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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Anatomy of The Groove: “Dance Little Sister” by Terence Trent D’Arby

Terence Trent D’Arby is yet another example of a vital funk/soul revival occurring 30 years ago,in 1987. This ambitious NYC multi instrumentalist came from a multi racial and very confusing back round-with bigamy and a lot of moving around involved. After a failed career attempt as a boxer and going AWOL from the US Army after collage,D’Arby formed the band The Touch while in Germany in 1984. After their debut album,the ambitious D’Arby decided to forge ahead with a solo career. His first and generally best known release being 1987’s Introducing The Hardline-produced out of London.

The first time I heard of D’Arby was with his hit song “Sign Your Name”,a jazzy Brazilian number that I thought was Stevie Wonder at the age of 8. It was decades until I purchased his entire debut album. Many of its other successful songs I’d missed out on originally. Knowing only of another D’Arby song called “Delicate” recorded for his third album  Symphony Or Damn from 1991.  At that time,one song leaped right out for me and my mom. Especially in terms of its groove. So much so that we actually planned on doing a conceptual music video for the song. Its called “Dance Little Sister”

A high hat heavy funky drum groove begins the song-with D’Arby improvising a a humorous vocal ad lib. After this,the lead synthesizer plays a high pitched,ten note riff over two bars before the instrumentation of the refrain comes in. This is a chunky rhythm guitar and ascending bass line playing call and response to accompanying horn charts. On the choruses of the songs,the harmonic phrases of the melody becomes more sustained to follow D’Arby’s gospel soul shouting. Saxophonist Mel Collins plays a solo over the rhythm section during the bridge before the chorus repeats until the song fades out.

Listening to it all these decades since it first came out, “Dance Little Sister” sounds like something of a middle ground between Prince’s Minneapolis live band funk sound and the approach of neo soul to come within the next decade. It definitely maintains the mid/late 80’s approach of condensing a funk groove. On the other hand,its one of the hardest live band funk jams of the late 80’s to be sure. Not only are horns used on it,but the synthesizer is used in the 70’s approach of having it be part of a full band sound rather than a dominating factor in the groove. Another international funk breakthrough of 1987.

 

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