Tag Archives: 1990s

Prince’s Crystal Ball: Celebrating 20 Years Since The Minneapolis Genius Opened His Musical Floodgates Of The Past

Prince hasn’t been with us for two years now. And there’s a lot talk about in regard to his vault of unreleased music at Paisley Park. It was one of the very first things I personally learned about the man in the late 90’s. Prince wasn’t releasing a lot of new music at that time. Likely because of his messy legal battles with Warner Bros. While the heat was dying down on that later in the decade,he actually seemed to be dipping into the vault quite a bit when it came to his newer releases. During this time, Prince also launched his earliest website and 1-800-NEW-FUNK phone service.

Prince offered up a multi disc boxed set that endeavored to officially release some of his most sought after material from his vault. The title track is full on psychedelic funk-with very tribal drum patterns and atonal flute at various points. “Dream Factory”,the Linn drum powered groove of “Movie Star” (which Prince proudly announces in the liner notes as “D’Angelo’s favorite bootleg”) ,the cinematic soul ballad “Crucial”,the demo jazzy funk groove of “Last Heart” and the acapella “An Honest Man” all derive from his massive 1986 era music production.

“Sexual Suicide” and “Good Love” derive from an unreleased album he’d credit to the name Camille-both utilizing strong hard funk,and the former with strong wah wah powered synths. “Cloreen Bacon Grease” heals from the sessions for The Time’s sophomore album in 1982-nothing but 15 minutes of funky drumming,bass and Morris Day humorously jiving lyrically. Because Prince was intending to release a triple album in 1986 with this same title,what surprised me is how much of this material gave from the first few years of him recording with the New Power Generation.

Some of these songs such as “Acknowledge Me”,”18 & Over”,remake of “P Control”, and “Poom Poom” are heavily bound to hip-hop beats . ‘2tomorrow” showcases him picking up on Miles Davis’s style of jazz hip-hop. A Shock G remix of “Love Sign” (featuring a clever sample of his own “DMSR” in the rhythm) has a G-funk friendly vibe. The NPG find some time to get seriously funky however on “Hide The Bone”,the stripped down “What’s My Name?”,’Calhoun Square”,the Sly Stone inspired “Make Your Mama Happy” and the P-Funk inspired duck face bass heavy “Days Of Wild (Free The Slave)”.

There’s also a clutch of ballads in the soulful, wah wah/horn driven “So Dark”,a wedding song for Maybe Garcia called “She Gave Her Angels” and “Goobye”. You also have the hard rock/blues shuffle of “Da Bang”-with it’s interludes of atonal guitars and the psychedelic soundscape of “Strays Of The World”. Prince is singing the straight up blues on “The Ride”,recorded live while “Get Loose” gets a live instrumental treatment without the industrialist electronics of the original while “Ripopgodazippa” deals with a modernistic pop/reggae rhythm-which has some heavily jazzy horn phrasings.

“Tell Me How U Wanna B Done” is a fast paced “hip-house” style dance number. This set was originally released in two configurations. Both added additional music to the 3 CD set. The store purchasable version added a new folk/blues based album called ‘The Truth’-and this is the version I own. The version only available over the 1-800-NEW-FUNK phone number also added a ballet Prince wrote and composted with Claire Fischer entitled Karmasutra. I never had this version of the album. But do have deep memories of an 18th birthday trip to NYC during the early summer.

Found this at the Tower Records in Manhattan. It felt very lucky to find this album,since there was never much talk about it coming out in record stores at the time. Musically speaking,this may be presented as an full album. But it’s actually an anthology style set. My only personal issue with it is that the songs are not presented in chronological order. With an artist as eclectic as Prince was,a sense of continuity in presenting his unreleased material showcased his musical evolution and experimentation.

On this album, a heavy JB style funk number from 1986 might be followed by a gruff rap/hip-hop number from 7-8 years later-for example. Honestly to me? It would’ve been more appropriate to concentrate on his often brilliant 80’s outtakes than showcasing so much from a then-present which…frankly haven’t worn well with age. But in terms of the funk,hip-hop/jazz,ballad and blues/rock exercises throughout this set? There are many treasures to be heard through this crystal ball.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Prince

Erykah Badu: ‘Baduizm’ & Remembrances Of A Musical Transition

When Erykah Badu released this album, the soul/R&B/funk genres of music were caught between transition and a holding pattern. All between the era from D’Angelo through TLC onto Jill Scott and Alicia Keys. In the middle of this, there would be Maxwell and Badu here . She did indeed burst onto the scene in 1997 and since then has never looked back. It was apparent that despite the insistence of the 90’s decade hip-hop could not exist as the sole basis for furthering soul and funk music. The zeitgeist of the late 90’s was going to have to provide an alternative to that musical ethic.

It mostly came down to a matter of voids. Lauryn Hill would soon be along to provide one such sound of her own. But there were just too many voids and a future unknown. For her own self, Badu is one of those people who marches to the beat of her own drummer. And that would be a jazz drummer if she had anything to do with it because that was where she came from. Not only that she used her vocal phrasing more like that of a muted horn in the manner of Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington. But also in the fact that the improvised flavor of the chord sequences she used told a similar story.

Taken by itself the music here is another matter. In an era where the singles mentality of popular music (abandoned in the 70’s) was again in full command of the music, Erykah Badu’s debut is an album first and foremost. There are standout individual songs. But her music is something like an aural casserole. You have a lot of ingredients mixed together. But they compliment each other to near perfection and it goes down great taking it in. The song “On & On” is not only a great single moment from this album but gives it a great patter with which to follow.

The rhythms,her vocals,the electric pianos and the askew,somewhat jazz phrased melodies all come together to form something very special. And she just keeps varying on that theme with “Appletree”, “Sometimes”, “Drama” and “Otherside Of The Game”. It’s also helpful that she views the romantic matters she sings about here through a very poetic filter,mixing it all up with a conscious and Afro bohemian point of view. And often this results in some straight up truths on songs such as “Certainly” and “4 Leaf Clover” mix ideas of self awareness and existentialism through her own personal filter.

Her sense of storytelling is also important here. While one of the best and most singular tunes here is a “skit” called “Afro”,which brings her humor and an even more jazzy sound to the mix. Erykah Badu’s music isn’t something that you may fully comprehend the first time you heart it. It’s definitely music that has a flow to it. The sound of it, Badu’s vocals and lyrics-the manner in which they kind of slip along the musical bed rather than dance upon it. It’s like one basic idea expanded upon for 14 separate songs that are…disconnected segments of one whole.

The first time I heard it was in a car trip around dusk and it seemed to fit the mood of that time and type of motion perfectly. She has a quiet sound to her voice. On the other hand she takes very unpredictable turns of phrase with it as well. It wouldn’t be a misstep to see her as something of a jazzy singer more than a contemporary soul/R&B one. There’s also an influence of hip-hop in her approach. But definitely not of the stereotypical variety. And it definitely did fill the void whether it was trying to. It clearly comes from the D’Angelo school to some degree. Also Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin On as well.

On the other hand, the sound of Baduizm is very stripped down . That’s another key factor of it. All good things….don’t last forever. They change. Or in the case of Erykah Badu they become somewhat less significant once they begin to influence other artists. I myself remember once reading in the early 2000’s that at that time, Erykah Badu’s music was too new to have musical impact on up and coming artists of the then new millennium. But in its day, Baduzim was a revelation. And it holds up very well today. That’s a sign she had something special going right from the start!

Leave a comment

Filed under Erykah Badu

Star Time At 26: Celebrating James Brown And The Grandest Record Of His Funky Legacy

Image result for James Brown Star Time

Star Time will have been around for 26 years this coming Sunday. And tomorrow would’ve been The Godfathers 84th birthday. The interesting thing about my history with JB is that for a couple of years in the 80’s,I thought that “Unity” and “Living In America’ were his very first songs. There was a huge disconnect between my youth in Maine and the musical arc of JB that still continues to run deep within the African American community. Of course by the end of the 80’s, it was important to my family that JB be appreciated beyond having been arrested for domestic abuse.

That 1988 arrest barely phased me because at the same time, I heard “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” on oldies radio for the first time. So knew this was an artist with serious history. Then almost a decade later,my father played “Cold Sweat” for me. And suddenly the music of James Brown became a necessity rather than a footnote in adolescent musical appreciation. Was deeply exploring funk music than. And JB was the one innovated that genre. Different music books I was reading then stated the definitive way to get into JB’s music was a 4 CD box set entitled Star Time.

Star Time is now a huge key notation between myself and friends online,such as Henrique Hopkins. In fact,it was part of many musical topics that helped he and I develop our friendship earlier on. Far as I’m concerned, its also one of the best multi disc compilation any artist has put together. I actually first discovered JB songs that are among my favorites such as “Think”,”Let Yourself Go”,”Funky President” and “Get Up Offa That Thing” on Star Time. And that is huge encouragement to dig deeper into the vast musical world of James Brown.

During this period, Star Time was a volume far outside the price range my  17 year old self. Luckily I was a member of the old BMG music club. And they had this particular box set on sale for half price. When I ordered it,my father wanted to borrow it disc by disc of course. It made sense. About 90% of JB’s recorded music was unknown to both of us. Of course that’s because James Brown is likely the most prolific black American recording artists in terms of released material. Even Star Time could only scratch the surface. What the box set does do is showcase exactly why James Brown was a major musical icon.

Star Time is a box set that covers JB’s music from 1956 through 1984. It starts out with he and his Famous Flames rhythmically unique take on doo-wop on “Please Please Please” and ends with the first part of his duet with Zulu Nation founder/hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa on “Unity Part 1”. What’s between that is a musical journey that you do not even need to read the wonderful essays included (by writers such as Nelson George) to comprehend. Its just 5 hours of music that showcases the many key points on the musical road of James Brown.

One of the most vital thing about Star Time is how it emphasizes how James Brown’s career wasn’t like a freight train run with a bunch of different stops. It was actually a fluid continuum. James Brown’s nickname “the hardest working man in show business” often referred directly to the almost super human level of touring/live shows he did for much of his life. During these shows,he didn’t merely present his present music of the time. All the periods of his musical progression were covered-adding newer songs as they applied to JB’s performance flow.

Although this is a box set of studio singles presented in chronological order, Star Time still presents that JB continuum in the same way his live shows tended to. Hence it also presents JB as an early precursor to the remix artist too. Original early 60’s versions of “I Got You” and “Its A Man’s World” are presented in the same setting as their better known hit versions as a result. This box sets nearly 30 years worth music music showcases JB going from doo-bop/R&B ballads into his funk innovation-with disco and hip-hop entering the mix later on. Not to even mention hitting on his instrumental music as well.

Even though this album was part of the huge 1990’s CD box set boom,there are few of these box sets that project the musical breadth of the given artist quite the way Star Time does. Given all that, this set doesn’t only entertain. It teaches while your dancing (and even singing) along to the music. Again that’s right in the key of what JB brought to funk: the idea that life was a soulful dance. And that everyone was living to the rhythm whether they realized it or not. So Star Time wasn’t only a musical lesson for myself and others. It can often be a live lesson at the same time.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under James Brown

Jamiroquai From 1993-2001: A Tribute To The Late Toby Smith

Jamiroquai Blog

Jamiroquai’s keyboardist Toby Smith passed away about 12 days ago-at the age of 46. Along with the bands front man Jason Kay, Smith was a prominent co-writer of much of their classic material. He left the band to spend more time with family during the making of their 2001 album A Funk Odyssey. To me,Jamiroquai’s music serves itself best across their albums. So in tribute to Toby Smith,I wanted to cover my Amazon.com reviews for their first three albums and A Funk Odyssey. Since I already posted my Amazon review of their 1999 album Synkronized  here before,that is excluded from this list.


Emergency On Planet Earth/1993

Let’s face it. The music world of 1993 was very very divided. There were those concerned mainly with matters of media credibility and those interested in the creation of their particular art. On both ends of the pond soul and funk music at this time generally wasn’t created. It was being programmed. That mixed with the whole credibility situation wasn’t making for much harmony.

Than came a British fellow named Jason Kay (known as Jay) and a talented quartet called Jamiroquai. Putting themselves out there in a mix of other groups in the “acid jazz” genre (often used as short hand for most varieties of funk) with people such as Brand New Heavies and Incognito this band didn’t exactly have the jam band tendencies of the former,nor the house/dance leanings of the latter. But they did something very special that meant a lot to myself personally.

Equally capable of top notch musicianship and melodic invention,another thing Jamiroquai understood was the value of instrumental production. The music is well mixed,with the right touches of reverb and echo when needed. Basically it’s going for a 70’s jazz/funk/soul sound that’s produced authentically. Jay’s vocals,long and very incorrectly compared with Stevie Wonder have a high to mid range lilt about them that are elastic enough to fit these songs.

A better musical comparison might be Curtis Mayfield,especially the soul stepping funky soul groove of the opening “When You Gonna Learn” and it’s environmentalist poetry. “Too Young To Die” extends to a similar groove with a more anti war message. On “Hooked Up” and “Revolution 1993” it comes out what fantastic musicians they are well with polyrhythmic jazzier funk grooves with a more instrumental leaning.

“Music Of The Mind” is similar though on the more mid tempo end of that area. Headhunters style Clavinet type stop/start funk is prominent on “Whatever It Is,I Just Can’t Stop” where as “Blow Your Mind” has this lean sophistifunk sound with Jay’s scatting George Benson style with the violin. The band also did for the didgeridoo in funk what EWF did for the kalimba: to bring it into the consciousness of the bands sound and hopefully the listener.

The title song,with it’s disco friendly dance-funk sound reprises the environmentalist concerns where “If I Like It,I Do It” again brings the Mayfield/Impressions type funk/soul to the forefront. Although clearly under the wing of his influence,it was likely too many comparisons that commercially doomed this band. Jamiroquai stand as very much their own musical animal. Sometimes sweet as funk can be,other times as deep in the groove as you could get. They epitomized everything a 90’s era funk band could be. And even for the doubters they have,this album stands very very strong.

The Return Of The Space Cowboy/1994

Have to say here that I’ve never seen a band completely slide past the very common “sophomore slump” problem in a finer way that Jamiroquai. As a matter of fact there is significant growth to be heard here on every level from their excellent debut Emergency on Planet Earth. Almost every funk band of the 70’s came to full flower through a process. Some started out more Latin rock bands. Others closer to jazz. Some straight up soul. Jamiroquai in fact did the same thing.

While their debut definitely was something new,there was still a lot of elongated jazz-funk style songs there that were just plain unheard of on “R&B” albums in this era. It was definitely still part of the process. Longer more instrumental songs aren’t nearly as common on this album. And when they show up,their somewhat more tightly constructed. Also Jay’s voice and lyrics show more emotional depth and a deeper thinking process here. Whatever the case,this is where Jamiroquai truly came into it’s own creatively anyway.

Primarily this album is dominated by uptempo,melodic sophistifunk songs with heavy use of keyboards and bass/guitar interaction. The title song,”Stillness In Time”,”Light Years”,”Mr Moon” and the dynamic “Scam” (my personal favorite here) all fall into this place. Taken together these all have the effect of sounding like a greatest hits album all by itself-literally from the first song mentioned to the last tracing funk’s development from about 1974 to 1978 or so within only four songs. Around the middle? More fascinating things are happening.

“Half The Man” is really the only song the band ever did with anything close to a genuine Stevie Wonder influence with it’s high pitched synthesizer melodies,rather slogging tempo and lyrics of romantic anxiety. “Manifest Destiny” is a terrific,soul searching journey where Jay acknowledges “the shame of his ancestors” regarding abominations such as slavery. And also makes points that indicate there was something to be learned from African culture as opposed to it being exploited. An important point to make.

“Journey To Arhemland” is a more rhythmic use of didgeridoo this time around while the ballad paced,harp led “Morning Glory”and the closer “Just Another Story”,with it’s complex keyboard/synthesizer melodic interactions close the album out. Closing out with a live,somewhat DJ/turntable heavy live version of “Light Years” one understands that Jay,a former break dancer with a bit of a…past really did (and I think still does) understand the music that he’s making and how it needs to be done. Mostly props should go to him for forming a band as talented as Jamiroquai.

Although the sound quality of the album is somewhat flat and muddy,likely to achieve the “retro analog/mono” flavor they might’ve been looking for,the band interplay on the mid 90’s Jamiroquai albums was extremely strong. As years passed Jay would become most associated with them,to the point where people believed Jay was in fact Jamiroquai. It was a similar issue that occured with Sade-a lead singer used to identify with an actual band. What’s really important however is the music. And it’s important that it existed the way it did,at this time too. Flat out haters aside,so many aspiring modern funk bands could learn a lot from Jamiroquai’s musical example.

Travelling Without Moving/1996

If your lucky enough to have followed them from the time of their debut album Emergency on Planet Earth(and even I wasn’t that fortunate) Jamiroquai were one of those bands you were probably hoping would break into the mainstream. The mid 1990’s was certainly a puzzling time for music. The keeping it real ethic of the early part of the decade was evolving into….well a number of new and different musical ideas.

But during the 1996-1997 period in which this was released at least there was a melting pot of different musical brews to draw on. A funk revival,gestating during the early part of the decade via hip-hop samples and some rock jam bands was starting to take root more heavily. This was good news for Jamiroquai. Their music always had been commercial..well if it had been the mid 1970’s anyway.

They key was in the production and craft. They weren’t just another rhythm section trying to recreate the JB’s or Sly & The Family Stone. They more freely acknowledged the dance-funk era of people such as Slave,Heatwave (to whom I’d make a close comparison actually),Brass Construction and even Quincy Jones’ early Michael Jackson productions. The fact they had a singular identity all their own as well was big in their favor. And they have that identity every workout they could give it on this one.

The first song “Virtual Insanity”,one of the few of the more hopeful and analytical message songs of the era is a fairly basic funk tune,save for a light samba style bridge. But do to the changing of eras perhaps it captivated the MTV crowd and,due to this era’s obsession with media credibility bought Jamiroquai their own pop pass for that era,getting them international hits and making Jay K (and his hats) something of cultural icons of the day.

“Cosmic Girl”,”Alright” and the title track,with more obvious hip-hop scratching all add to the sophistifunk flavor of the album. The first two were the two other big pop hits. But this isn’t a hit parade type album by any means. “Use The Force”,with it’s full on Afro Latin percussive/Fender Rhodes jamming is of the same type you’d see on their first two albums and “High Times” adds a slight bit of an edge with a heavy rock guitar/snarling sax solo and a…..well not very pro-drug message when you actually listen to the lyrics.

The reggae number “Drifting Along” is a strong reminder of how that genre is really the main point gluing the 80’s and 90’s generation directly with the 70’s,which was meaningful considering the heavy “antieightiesitis” hanging on at this point. There are a couple of didgeridoo numbers that aren’t all that interesting but “You Are My Love” is another great uptempo and horn fueled sophistifunk song where “Everyday” and “Spend A Lifetime” are elegantly crafted soul/funk ballads.

“Do You Know Where Your Going To”,a bonus track not named on the back of the CD is a potent reminder of how close the then burgeoning drum n bass sound was to wah wah fueled blacksploitation styled funk,as both of these musical techniques are employed together here. So in addition to getting Jamiroquai at that moment where they did achieve that success they deserved.

It had little to do with their musical style actual,great and underappreciated as it was. It had to do with their pop charts and very two sided press,especially how the press really played up that very iffy Stevie Wonder angle. Honestly,that influence was never as strong as it was made out to be. You’d think this sudden mass popularity would be given to a Jamiroquai album that was really grabbing for the public’s attention.

That isn’t what happened here at all. They just made a record that was a very smooth extension of where they were taking their music with their first two albums. And it was likely just a degree of luck that they were in the right place and time to be successful with it.

That fact of it being still one of their most creatively potent albums is why I recommended so highly,not just the fact it was popular. Not a bad place to get into the band. Yet not the be all and end all either. No matter what it is an important reminder when,for a short time anyway Jamiroquai and their sound…came close to ruling the pop music world.

A Funk Odyssey/2001

Jamiroquai’s fifth album and first of the new millennium had the disadvantage of being one of two famous albums released on September 11’th,2001-the other being Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft. There’s some irony this album was released at the moment the life of everyone in the world seemed to change in one morning. It didn’t have much of a chance for success stateside especially. World events just didn’t really allow for it.

For one thing the rave friendly front cover art completely dispenses with the bands “Buffalo man” trademark. Not only that no formal personnel are listed. This gives the impression that Jamiroquai had suddenly become just a trade name for Jay Kay. And this would be a disguised solo album for him. Somehow,with only his image on the front cover it did seem that way on first glance. If that wasn’t an indicator enough of something very different,even a cursory listen to the music inside would tell the tale.

From the very beginning this album is a very radical departure for Jamiroquai. “Feels So Good” starts out with a very glossy,electronic fusion of 80’s New Romantic dance and funk music,very light on the usual 70’s unfluence. On the other hand “Little L”,”You Give Me Something” and “Love Foolosophy” bring back that heavy dance/funk sound on three well crafted numbers with a heavy late 70’s Michael/Jermaine Jackson flavor to them.

“Corner Of The Earth”,a surprising hit with a symphonic bossa nova flavor contains another of Jay’s Earth conscious lyrics and this type of tune is returned to on the closing “Picture Of My Life”. “Stop Don’t Panic” and “Main Vein”,with their heavy orchestration bring that cinematic TV/blackspoitation flavor to the surface where the totally 80’s electro/hip-hop sound of “Twenty Zero One” not only sounds nothing like Jamiroquai but also completely outside their previous conceptual relm.

Overall this album is lyrically a very reflective and poetic album especially on “Black Crow”,an ode to the atrocities of war on civilians (quite appropriate and convenient for this exact time really) is actually the one jazzy funk type song most similar to their earlier material here.

When I first got this it took me a few listens before I fully absorbed what Jamiroqui were trying to pull off here. I am still not sure. Interestingly enough,for the most part the title is still a little confusing because of all the musics this album embraces,it isn’t the closest to hardcore funk in their catalog

‘A Sophistifunk Odyssey’ perhaps? Maybe the title has to do with an odyssey away from funk as opposed to into it. Either way,whoever else plays on it there’s definitely the feeling this might have in fact been a Jay Kay solo album under the Jamiroquai banner. His own vocals,lyrical concerns and style are dripping out of every pore of this album. And it comes through loud and clear.


When looking back on the way these albums progressed in terms of funk,Toby Smith helped in Jamiroquai’s sound evolving along the same lines  as the 70’s funk icons-from jazzier instrumentals earlier on to disco,boogie and electro funk sounds later on. In terms of the personal history discussed here,it also points to a time when funk was only a good word internally and among hip-hop samples. And all the way up through the the post 9/11 world. Though he’s gone now, Toby Smith did live to see the modern “funk odyssey” of today’s retro funk/disco movement spread and become successful.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Jamiroquai

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Florida Room” by Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen was said to have had a case of writers block after his 1982 album The Nightfly. In fact,it wouldn’t be for another decade until he began writing for his follow up solo album entitled Kamaliriad in 1993. The album is for all intents and purposes a Steely Dan record-with Walter Becker featured on bass and lead guitar on most of the songs. The album lyrically picked up on its predecessors reflection on youth to showcase a more middle aged perception. Musically speaking,the album is instrumentally modern for the time but features a lot of songs based heavily in early/mid 70’s funk.

Conceptually the liner notes describe the album as having the loose concept of a man taking a road trip in a new car at the turn of the millennium called a Kamakiri,which is steam powered and actually has a GPS type device in it. So on the most basic level Kamakiriad is a lyrical travelogue-set in that always cryptic Donald Fagen lyrical approach. Its an album that I’d heard played by my family many many times after it came out.  Of course one song leaped out at me seventeen years later while celebrating my 30th birthday with my family in Tampa/Clearwater. The song is appropriately entitled “Florida Room”.

A grooving,percussion accented beat starts off the song with a fanfarring,melodic horn chart with the electric piano and bass playing the different changes for a two bar intro. Than Fagen’s processed Fender Rhodes piano chimes in with a warm,bouncy roundness as the drums and rhythm guitar all take on a brightly melodic,funky shuffle. The female backup vocals on the chorus plays call and response with the horn charts-whereas Fagen’s vocal on the refrains are accompanied most heavily by the processed Rhodes. After a bridge where the horn charts solo,the chorus repeats as the song fades out.

“Florida Room” might be one of the most under sung songs in the Donald Fagen/Steely Dan cannon of music. The bouncing shuffle,melody and rather happy sounding romantic lyrics have a soulful funkiness reminiscent of what Joe Sample might’ve gotten on songs by the Crusaders. Yet with the bop jazz style chordal changes and Fagen’s trademarked processed Rhodes piano,that Steely Dan sound is the dominating one. Since both groups mentioned came from similar places musically,”Florida Room” is a reminder of how 70’s style jazz/funk could remain relevant to the early 90’s almost totally uncut.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen: The First Two Solo Albums

donald-fagen

Donald Fagen is someone whom I’ve neglected exploring on Andresmusictalk. And Steely Dan for that matter. Its a major goal for the blog to remedy that this year. Fagen will be one year short of 70 years old this coming Tuesday. And to start that celebration of the man and his music,wanted to start out by discussing the beginning of his solo career. It all began as an outgrowth from Steely Dan at first-utilizing some of the same session musicians such as Greg Phillinganes and Hugh McCracken. He also centered on similar jazzy melodies and his signature processed Fender Rhodes electric piano.

Fagen once discussed his 1982 debut The Nightfly and his follow up a decade later in Kamakiriad as representing the arc of his life. Conceptually his debut focused on his adolescence during the early 60’s during JFK’s “new frontier”-actually one of the song titles. The following album acts as a similar character dealing with middle aged situations,and tentatively looking to the future. Musically both albums reflect the change. The Nightfly sounds like a straight Steely Dan album for the most part. Kamakiriad adds some early 90’s drum programming and electronics on some of its songs.

These two albums are strongly linked to a sense of nostalgia in my own life. Hearing songs such as “IGY” and “Greenflower Street” while driving to pick apples with my parents while in the 4th grade. A local supermarket playing the whole album while at one point in the 90’s. Then there was hearing “Tomorrow’s Girls” on the radio for the first time-as well as “Florida Room” being a major ear worm while vacationing on my 30th birthday with my family in Tampa. Each of the songs on this albums are noteworthy for discussion. In the end though,best to deal with the entire albums themselves.


The Nightfly (1982)

During his period as half of Steely Dan for all intents and purposes Donald Fagen’s lyrical focus had always been on sly,cryptically phrased musings on the various twisted urban misfits surrounding him and Walter Becker in New York City and LA. It became a trademark. But Fagen had another side to him and a lot of it had to do with a completely middle American existence in 1950’s suburbia. From the stark black and white back cover photography of tract housing to his somewhat ambiguous manifesto written on the back this is certainly a very clever way to differentiate Fagen as a solo artist outside Steely Dan.

Musically this album is not in fact too different than [[ASIN:B00004YX39 Gaucho]] but the sound of the album is quite a bit more full and keyboard oriented. It could easily have been a Steely Dan album since all of the same musicians that you’d find on a latter period Dan recording and the same polished sound,enhanced further by the fact that this is one of the earliest full digital recordings ever made. Songs such as “I.G.Y”,”Greenflower Street” and the wistful shuffle of “Walk Between The Raindrops” explores the pseudo futurism and often ironic romanticism of post WWII America with Fagen wittily crooning about “getting your ticket to the wheel in space”.

The funkified “New Frontier”,named for JFK’s famous slogan gives a similar treatment to an atomic age fallout shelter romance Fagen may or may not have genuinely indulged in during his young. That romantic end of the theme is again explored in the ballad “Maxine” with some wonderfully multi tracked vocals as well as the well received cover of “Ruby Baby”,adding to the period flavor. The title track stars Fagen as “Lester The Nigthtfly”,a graveyard shift DJ broadcasting “jazz and conversation” while taking some eccentric call in’s along the way.

There’s also a noir-ish political intrigue Cuban revolution-era sendup on the breezily percussive “The Goodbye Look”. Even though the album has a unified lyrical and musical theme it also contains enough variety and charm to make it work in many context,from the audiophile to the irony of hearing this entire album played beginning to end for years in the local supermarket. Either way it’s one of the most welcoming and clearly defined of the all the Steely Dan related releases and was the best possible way for Fagen to begin his career on his own.

Kamakiriad/1993

From the start Donald Fagen has always been a very smart man. Most of the creative decisions he made in Steely Dan tended to be the correct ones,as much of a perfectionist as he tended to be. Likely that was part of it. After his enormously successful solo debut [[ASIN:B000002KXV The Nightfly]],very much an extension on Steely Dan there was a decade long gap between albums. And when this finally emerged it was very much a Steely Dan album in all but name,featuring production and playing from Walter Becker. Something more interesting was going on though.

Part of the appeal of Steely Dan,in terms of their lyrics,was their devotion to very implicit (sometimes cryptic) uses of language. You didn’t always know exactly what they were talking about. Sometimes you got the impression you didn’t want to. This came along at a time where most popular music of the time was stating things in highly explicit ways. You’d think Donald Fagen would have trouble surviving in this environment of harsh music and lyrics. Actually he turned that very much to his advantage.

For starters the focus of this sophomore solo set is the flip of the first one. Where on that he was looking back upon his youth,here he was looking forward on middle aged. And considering we’re talking about one of the most perceptive modern songwriters this side of Joe Jackson,he’s got plenty of stories to tell. He’s very much the observer on “Trans-Island Skyway”,”Countermoon” and “Springtime” that open the album. These are grinding funk jams with some JB like guitar licks and breaks but with this ultra clean production and elaborate pop tunes mithing he was known for.

The somewhat slower “Snowbound” has a lovely sound even as it deals with a midlife crisis. “Tomorrow’s Girls” is very much [[ASIN:B00003002C Aja]] period Steely Dan all the way,with this hilariously witty lyric comparing the new generation of women to Stepford Wife-like B-movie body snatchers. “Florida Room” is one of my favorites on this album full of them for me,a swinging uptempo jazz funk number with an extremely catchy melody and a sassy theme. The near 9 minute “On The Dunes” is a a beautiful jazzy ballad with some wonderful piano chords and a very reflective,if sometimes sad take on going up time and the river as it were.

The album ends with another great mixture of jazz and funk on “Teahouse On The Tracks”. In the end this is one of the finest albums to come out of the Steely Dan musical cannon. Donald Fagen was extremely lucky in that regard. His first two solo records,though released a decade apart were absolute musical triumphs. And both were tremendously successful as well. After being let down so massively by the pop culture changed in 1991-92 hearing “Tomorrows Girl” on new music pop stations was an absolute delight to these ears.

It would be under a decade when Steely Dan finally did re-emerge with a new album [[ASIN:B00004GOXS Two Against Nature]] and take home their first ever Grammy for album of the year. I am of the opinion that if pop music had gone for the type of approach that Steely Dan and people like them had,people could turn on the radio and be able to sing,hum and dance along to music happily that would give them something to think about in the end up. This is music that will make you dance along,hum along,feel happy,sad and creative all at the same time. So if I could thank Fagen himself for putting this kind of music out,I would without hesitation.


These two albums are now part of a trilogy of Donald Fagen albums. The final of them was released just over a decade ago and was called Morph The Cat. It came after two Steely Dan comebacks in the early aughts. And it reflected the transition to elder hood. It isn’t an album I have strong memories of so will have to revisit it in the future. But The Nightfly and Kamakiriad still stand to me as the most representative of Donald Fagen’s solo sound. With his most recent album Sunken Condos dealing with a whole new conceptual threat,we’ll just have to see where Fagen’s groove takes him next time.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Donald Fagen

Anatomy of THE Groove: “When You Gonna Learn” by Jamiroquai

Jamiroquai were probably the most commercially successful funk revivalists to come out of the UK acid jazz scene-right behind Incognito and Brand New Heavies in terms of influence.  The core rhythm section of the band consisted of lead singer Jason Kay,keyboardist Toby Smith and bassist Stuart Zender. Their sound was defined by the presence of the aboriginal Australian instrument the didgeridoo,played by Wallace Buchanan in the band. Visually,they were (and still are) known for Mr.Kay’s huge feathered hats. This gave them a distinctive look and approach to their jazz-funk sound.

My own experience with Jamiroquai is hard to condense,but important to the musical focus of this entire blog. During 1996,I was at Strawberries Records when a young,friendly employee named Jeb started discussing funk and jazz music with me. At the time,it was not a conversation I was expecting. He enthusiastically mentioned a band named Jamiroquai. They had a huge record out at the time called “Virtual Insanity”. The album he recommended was their then newest called Travelling Without Moving. My mom and I in particular were very enthusiastic about the band. With me even encouraging her to seek out their previous two albums. It was one of a few times our musical interests interlinked.

Over the next few years,my relationship with Jamiroquai was complicated by the musical zeitgeist of the late 90’s. With the written music press being the only way for most people to learn about music at the time,it was all too easy to be too informed by someone else’s subjective opinion. Jamiroquai were heavily criticized for two things. One was about Jay Kay as a white English man seemingly appropriating black American funk/disco styles.. Another was that the sociopolitical/environmentally based lyrics to Jamiroquai’s songs were seen as hypocritical due to Kay’s seemingly materialistic and drug obsessed attitude.

This was very confusing for me personally. Jamiroquai were the only new band I heard at the time who had the hopeful messages and strong Afro jazz/funk instrumental ethics in their music at the time. Most other newer music at the time were based in some variety of hip-hop or alternative/grunge rock. And where messages were present,they were often presented in what came across as a nihilistic and downbeat. That sense of musical starvation I personally experienced then motivated me to delve deep into Jamiroquai songs such as the opening track to their debut album “When You Gonna Learn?”

A hi hat heavy swinging drum opens the song with a droning didgeridoo solo over it. That solo soon gives way to a violin solo before the percussion and snaky bass line of the main song comes in in with a blasting horn chart. The violin,horn charts and percussive rhythm interact throughout the refrain-all before coming to a jaunty,horn fueled gallop on the refrain,accented itself by a descending flute solo. Wallace Buchanan’s didgeridoo takes a solo over the isolated drum/percussion rhythm before Stuart Zender’s bass line brings in another refrain/choral exchange for the song to fade out on.

The title of the Jamiroquai album this comes from is Emergency On Planet Earth. This opening song both musically and lyrically speaks to the potential for environmental destruction if we don’t learn to “play it nature’s way” as Jay Kay warns. It still amazes me to hear the multi ethnic fusions of Afrocentric percussion,jazzy styling’s and sunny melodic funk elements coming out of any nation on Earth during a time when most popular music seemed to be at its darkest and dreariest. Its songs such as this that really allowed Jamiroquai to become strong life support for me in a time when meaningfully funky music seemed to all be part of the past.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Jamiroquai

Anatomy of THE Groove: “I Gitt Around” by Chuckii Booker

Chuckii Booker is one of those artists whose intricate history is equal to the seeming few who have a strong knowledge of him. He was perhaps better known as the musical director,producer and opening act for Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation tour at only 23-24 years old. His talents as multi talented singer/songwriter/producer/multi instrumentalist got him signed as a solo artist to Atlantic in 1988. Not because of his original talents as primarily a bass player. But because execs accidentally listened to the other side of the demo tape that featured his vocals.

If funk/soul music had followed a totally straight line in the late 80’s/early 90’s,Chuckii Booker would likely have been the intermediary step between Prince and D’Angelo. After a couple Top 10 R&B smashes,Booker became regarded as a producer. In that respect touching on the work of artists ranging from Vanessa Williams,his godfather Barry White and EWF alumni Phillip Bailey. It took me a couple decades to go out and pick up Booker’s two solo CD’s. One of them (and his final one to date) was 1992’s Niice ‘N Wiild. One of the songs that’s really gotten my attention off of it is called “I Git Around”.

After a brief moment of party dialog,the main groove of the song sets in. This is a pounding drum machine that hits a very strong,electrified snare drum sound on the second beat. Along with that are two bass lines. One is a pulsing synth bass,the other is “possibly” a live one playing a “duck face” funky wiggle. Booker brings explosive synth strings,horn lines providing a strong “video game” sound along with the bluesy accents of the chorus. Not to mention a chromatic piano walk down playing in and out throughout the song. Just before the song fades,Booker brings in a tough chicken scratch guitar.

The new jack swing style could (and often was) made extremely generic by many in its commercial heyday. Yet Chuckii Booker used this song (along with many of his others) to point out the sub genres roots in 80’s funk. And even with the mildly new jack friendly rhythm,the instrumental toughness and electronic flamboyance is straight up P-Funk. Everything from the instrumentation to the lyric is pretty much a direct extension of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” from a decade before it. Makes one wonder how different 90’s uptempo music might’ve been had it followed this ultra funky model.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1990s, chicken scratch guitar, chromatic walkdown, Chuckii Booker, drum machine, drums, Funk Bass, New Jack Swing, P-Funk, piano, synth bass, synth brass

‘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.

 

2 Comments

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

Prince (Protege) Summer: “Chocolate” by The Time (1990)

The Time’s story was covered last month extremely well by my newest blogging partner Zach Hoskins. Today is the birthday of Jerome Benton. He has not only been a member of every lineup of The Time (including the Original7even) but was also part of The Family-the protege band of a protege band. The story of The Time itself is complex and intricate. But in 1989,they were planning a comeback with Prince for an album entitled  Corporate World. That album was never released. But The Time did actually make that comeback a year later with a reworked version of that album entitled Pandemonium.

Pandemonium, along with its newer songs,contained a number of tunes that had actually been recorded long ago. This kind of goes with Prince’s tendency in the year 1990 of dipping into his vault a great deal. One of these songs was recorded in the spring of 1983 for The Time’s Ice Cream Castles. It originally featured Prince playing all the instruments. But for this album,the song was reworked to feature some instrumental participation from the band members. Happily in any case,it was among the funkiest songs on the album as well. It was called “Chocolate”.

The sound of a car screeching to a halt,along with Morris Day’s trademark scream. Then the drum solo comes in-somewhat similar to The Jacksons “State Of Shock” in tone actually. After the first few beats,the 10 note bass line comes in. The main chorus of the song rushes in after that. This consist of fast paced synth brass interlocking  with a similarly paced,deep rhythm guitar. This strips down a bit for the refrains. For sections where Morris Day does some of his comic raps,a thick chicken scratch guitar takes over. Morris and the synth brass all come to their own halt again at the songs conclusion.

“Chocolate” is one of those funk jams where it is clearly out of the school of the synth brass heavy,stripped down funk sound of Prince’s early 80’s jams. Including the musical touches added by people such as guitarist Jesse Johnson,Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis,the reworked song really brings out how much,in a manner similar to “Housequake”,how much of a modern day James Brown funk sound it all is. In this one,the JB approach is even more overt overall. Still its the funky instrumental personality and The Time’s humor that really bring this song to life.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 1990s, chicken scratch guitar, drums, Funk Bass, Jam & Lewis, Jerome Benton, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Morris Day, naked funk, Prince, rhythm guitar, synth brass, The Time