Tag Archives: album reviews

’88 On The Long Play: ‘Festival’ by Lee Ritenour

From the late 70’s onward, Lee Ritenour had focused primarily on developing his music in somewhat more of a jazz-rock fusion context. While it seemed that  music was starting to fade into a much softer sound, Rit managed to reflect that with a light instrumental touch that somehow managed to embrace great rhythmic and melodic strength to it. He became very in demand as a session guitar player too. Nearly a decade following his Rio album, Lee Ritenour makes a return to the music world playing solely the acoustic guitar.

And of course, this took him right back to the Brazilian music he never lost his affinity for. This album is home to two urban funk numbers in the opener “Night Rhythms” and “Rio Soul”. Neither blast you over the head with a hard groove,but present themselves as “fine wine”  type jazz-funk grooves of the era. It’s Marcus Miller, Omar Hakim and Anthony Jackson from NYC that bring these to life as well. The Brazilian musicians have a chance to really catch fire on the rich samba of “Latin Lovers” which, much like the deeply rhythmic “Odile, Odila” features Brazilian scat singer Joao Bosco.

On the Latin soul of “Linda”,another vocalist Caetano Veloso sings the lead in Portuguese. “Humana”,”New York/Brazil” and the closer “The Inner Look” all focus in on the melodic end of Rit’s acoustic playing. I’ve heard it said in reference to Earth Wind & Fire that their music is sweet as funk can be. Lee Ritenour’s music reflects a similar impulse as he too has been heavily influenced throughout his career by the Brazilian musical bug. And again,he’s been able to zero in on that crucial spot in his musicianship where he can play softly and melodically while at the same time reflecting a hard driving rhythmic groove.

This same musical ethic applies to the instrumental powers of the other musicians playing with him. Also by playing also as accompaniment to different types of vocalists-both from New York, Brazil and LA he was at least able to bring the sometimes divergent musical interests of northern,western and southern America together by virtue of the musical kinsman ship of the personal involved. And the end result is a resounding success.

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R.Kelly Keeping The ‘R’ In His Music With His 1998 Double Album In Its 20th Year

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During much of the 90’s, the success of R&B was largely dependent on how much alike (and how much of a party atmosphere) it had as opposed to any strong creative activity. Somehow, R. Kelly was one of a few who flourished as a standout artist during this time. That’s because he both resisted the contemporary soul/R&B/funk in its day and embraced it. One thing about this album is that it closed his first decade of recording by embracing the recently revived concept of the double album in the genre. Not only that but is also showed how the modern spirit seemed to resist the impulse of the double album itself.

The double album format was generally presenting a lot of quality music with extended runs. And little to no weak songs. This album might count as a slight revival of the format. Still, this album had many of the pros and cons of it’s era. Across 29 tracks and over two hours, this is probably one of the longest double sets-made for the CD era. Its main flaw was to fill nearly every available moment of space on the CD with music. Also as with all of R.Kelly’s 90’s albums, its uneven. Honestly, this would’ve made an excellent hour long single CD. And still been his best release of the decade.

But the fact it was so uneven was part of it’s charm. What the fairly generic 2-step style hip-hop/R&B (fairly new at the time) lacked in musical innovation they gained on in lyrical content. Songs such as “When A Woman’s Fed Up” and “Down Low Double Life” basically help the listener to understand the place modern women have in their failed relationships with “doggish men”-as R calls them-as well as their partial responsibility.
Musically by far two of the strongest songs here are the first two. “Home Alone” with Keith Murray and “Spendin’ Money”.

The two tunes here featuring Jay Z “We Ride”,”Only Loot Can Make Me Happy” and (to an extent) the Nas duet of “Money Makes The Wold Go ‘Round” all have a stripped down “nu-funk” late 90’s equivalents of the naked funk style. And they built on some thick, phat electric bass and excellent songwriting. There’s also two rather unique songs in the context of this particular album in the mid tempo, wah wah drenched “Suicide”,a scarily cinematic slice of slow funk concerning someone thinking the ending of a relationship as the end of his life.

“Dancing With A Rich Man” brings in light Latin dance ballad rhythm,keeping the “Spanish tinge” introduced from jazz to R&B and onward alive in his music. Of course, there’s also “If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time”-a completely Sam Cooke inspired vocal on a 60’s styled soul ballad and the more Motown flavored ballad “What I Feel/Issues” in direct counterpoint to the more obviously adult contemporary “I’m Your Angel” with Celine Dion. And also the addition of the epic gospel soul standard Kelly wrote “I Believe I Can Fly”.

So for sure ‘R’ has its lack of focus.  But in addition to allowing his musical unevenness to showcase the dual nature all classic soul artists tend to have, this album also shows how he tends to approach his albums in a similar manner to Persian rugs; he tends to leave one or more musical knot undone and flawed. Jus so the album has no chance of being perfect. It keeps his music human for sure. And sometimes it keeps things from being as good as they could be. No matter how one approaches this,  it’s still one of his finest releases.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘The Big Throwdown’ by LeVert

LeVert were already three albums into their career , and had already more than defined their sound.  Produced by Gerald Levert, Marc Gordon, Craig Cooper and Midnight Star’s Reggie Calloway ,this is an album that,in it’s day encompassed a very broad spectrum of tempos,flavors and contemporary textures that,regardless of the tempo always has a hard driving and intense quality. Gerald as a vocalist was without doubt the son of his father;about five seconds listening to him you’ll notice how it’s hard to tell them apart at times.

The first tune on the album “Casanova” has strong shuffling hip-hop beats that in a fiery way. It predates the new jack swing sound just bursting on the scene but the relatively slow,slogging funkiness of the tempo is more in keeping with the sound achieved by Kashif on his Love Changes; a bridge crossing 80’s funk and the hip-hop based style of uptempo music that would be prominent in the future. LeVert were in a lot of ways best known for their slow songs and “Good Stuff”, “Don’t U Think It’s Time”, “My Forever Love” and “Love The Way You Move Me”.

All of those songs encompass…what I’ll describe as a cross between O’Jays-like vocal harmonies and the rhythmic ballad style of the Isley Brothers- with some rocky guitar flourishes round and about along with some tasty drum programming. “Sweet Sensation” is a shuffling uptempo kind R&B. Its therefore more in keeping with Luther Vandross and 80’s Gladys Knight & The Pips.  And it fits right in with the “retro nouveau” musical approach of 1987,  But any smoothness that style is normally associated with is sharpened up with a very strong jubilant gospel flavor.

The last three tunes on the album “In N Out”, the 8+ minute “Temptation” and “Throwdown” all showcase LeVert finding the funk with all the energy of both their own flavors and what Cameo were achieving during that period: driving rhythms and beats and some light electro flourishes that serve to emphasize the vocals,not burry the rest of the music. 1987 was a year that found R&B and funk in the throws of some very strong musical transitions and even so LeVert were managing to make everything involved in that respect sound genuinely effortless.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Let It Loose’ by Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine

By the late 1980’s when this album came out, so much had changed for Gloria Estefan. An And for just about everything in the Latin-pop/freestyle field of dance music-which had come to rely a lot on people such as Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam as much as Gloria. And it was Estefan who more or less got the ball rolling. This is the album where her roll as a singular Latin diva really began to shine on her own. It’s not clear despite her top billing over Miami Sound Machine (which would continue on the next album) if this album is her solo debut or the final group effort.

Actually, this album wound up being something of a mixture of both as “Emilio And The Jerks” are credited for production. So it’s likely they would be more considered to be her backing band here than her being in more of a participatory role. What mattered most here is just how wonderful an album this is overall. There are some times where an album is based more in uptempo music or ballads. On this album anything, regardless of tempo, is very well done. Now this was recorded in 1987 so the album is arranged with a heavily “contempo” electro-dance style sound.

All the same, every synthesizer used here is used as a rhythm element. So this album is primarily based in rhythmic uptempo numbers such as “”Betcha’ Say That”,the title song,”Give It Up”,”Love Toy” and “I Want You So Bad” so for those who couldn’t get enough of the huge hits “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and “1-2-3” will find the rest of the album is very consistent AND equally as poppy. So there’s no filler material here. There are two ballads here-both very different. My favorite is “Can’t Stay Away From You” which is of course the more rhythmic of the two.

“Anything For You”,which with it’s big ballad sound really showcases the more vocal style of Estefan’s music to come. I’ve always been the first one to say that with all the saturation radio play of their hits Gloria and Miami Sound Machine were one of the more unheralded pop phenomenon of their time and their music was highly impressionable on the big Latin pop boom of Ricky Martin and such a decade or so later. And during the the mid to late 80’s the electro/synth dance music of the day got just what it needed in the pulsing Latin rhythms of the freestyle movement.

The freestyle dance approach is one Miami Sound Machine (among others) helped to pioneer. So I’ll always remember this album less as a period piece (as some people might) and as an important step forward in terms of how,at different times, Latin musical styles have helped rescue pop music from rhythmically stifled time periods even when it seemed other significant musical genres could not. Let It Loose would not be the final album credited to Miami Sound Machine. At the same time, it represented them as a significant part of 1987’s vital focus of live and electronic sounds in dance music.

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Funk Revelations Of 1987: ‘Freedom’ by Santana

Considering the revivalist creative spirit of the 80’s, it was still surprising that a musician as innovative and distinctive as Carlos Santana was not only still around but had never went away. Signed to Columbia,his music kept reaching the people. And thereby producing an audience-especially when one of his fusions of the contemporary sounds of the given time period impacted strongly on them. All the same, the Mexican American spirituality and Carlos’s 60’s type idealism hadn’t left him either.

During 1987, with social movements such as the ones to end Apartheid in Africa and even the AIDS activism of Act Up were showcasing that positive social protest was alas not dead during the last years of Reaganomics. On this album Santana expanded the hybrid band he was going for to include both Genesis’s Chester Thompson and Graham Lear (himself a Gino Vannelli alumbi) as drummers,along with bringing back keyboardist Tom Coster and bassist Alphonso Johnson into the mix.

In addition to guesting blues icons Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, this album also marked the return of another Santana alumni in Buddy Miles-lead vocalist for this potent album.  “Veracruz” opens this album on the note much of it maintains: heavy duty uptempo danceable funk with Minneapolis style synthesizer riffs and some mean bass lines. With the harmonica solo of Junior Welles here its clear that,outside the instrumentation this song is also squarely in the 12 bar electric blues tradition.  Never a surprise in any funk but it really sticks out strong on this one.

“Once It’s Gotcha” is right in the same heavy funk vein. “Songs Of Freedom”, “Deeper,Dig Deeper”and “Praise” are all right there too. And on them Santana has re-introduced something that the best of funk is always wise to embrace: a strong humanitarian consciousness in the lyrics. “She Can’t Let Go” is a slower tune with a chill styled aura about the moaning electronics and the dynamically intense melody of the chorus. “Love Is You” is a very pretty instrumental-with a strong contemporary jazz/pop flavor with Coster’s glassy synthesizer playing the dreamy melody with Santana’s spirited soloing.

“Before We Go” has a deep gospel/soul flavor about it while “Mandella” is a deeply fluid African inspired instrumental jam that gets everyone on board instrumentally. The album rounds out with the break rhythm oriented and brooding dance/rock of “Victim Of Circumstance”. Two things characterize this album from start to finish. For one, every song on the album are strongly based in soul/funk and are very danceable. This doesn’t have the typical bed of percussion that you’ll find on most Santana albums. Its more integrated into the steady rhythms,which always stay firmly on the one.

Yet Freedom still holds onto the funk era ethnic identification that Santana always held. The production is just as contemporary as it had been on Santana’s previous album Beyond Appearances. Difference is a more live instrumental flavor is strongly showcased here. Another important element of this album is that it truly lives up to its title both lyrically and conceptually. The focus is squarely on both romantic love and the love that humanity has (and should have) for one another as well.  Santana are respected both by musicians musicians and as “classic rock” survivors.

That well rounded respect of Santana’s musical ethic is why I’d highly recommend this album. Both in lyrical and instrumental terms. And to anyone who thought the entirety of the 1980’s represented musical soullessness. Its an album of the band that I personally discovered long after it came it. But it still felt extremely familiar. True, Santana didn’t have the capability of ever being soulless as far as I’m concerned. And in a way, that is a big reason as to why this album can effectively serve as such a high example of what it is.

 

 

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Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘Goin’ Places’ by The Jacksons

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Pop chart statistics may mislead you otherwise but, in terms of The Jackson’s’ early years at Epic this has to be their more consistent and enjoyable album. Whereas some of the production on their self titled debut from the previous year is somewhat by-the-numbers Philly soul and is also recorded rather flat this album is mixed up a lot hotter and,while still deeply ingrained in the Philly sound the grooves,rhythms and sense of funk are much strong emphasized. So this second Epic album is a lot more punchy, aggressive and uptempo than the debut.

I didn’t realize until recently that “Music’s Takin’ Over” was really huge in New York during this time-according to an interview with Chuck D of Public Enemy my friend Henrique heard. And I can see how it would be a huge funk monster because the guitar and bass riffs are MEAN and Mikes voice has a lot of strength on the song.The title song is the only tune here that doesn’t really represent anything entirely new for the group and kind of sounds just a little behind the times.

“Diff’rent Kind Of Lady” is one of two (again) self written songs and is another incredible groove that has this great sense of tension in the rhythm and a tad of Vocorder in the end.”Even Though Your Gone” and “Find Me A Girl” are more glossy Philly ballads than the kind heard on the debut and actually serve as good selling points for this album.There are a couple more great uptempo tunes in the heavily,percussive bounce of “Jump For Joy”-one of the most genuinely “positive thinking” type songs I’ve heard and the happily funky orientation of the music really delivers on the promise.

There are some excellent celebratory synthesizer squiggles at the conclusion of the song that help to bring it even more to life.”Do What You Wanna”,another self written tune has a really crisp Philly jump to it and..is yet another positive attitude kind of song.Michael singing “Don’t be phony just be for real” may seem slightly awkward now but at least then I could sense he believed it even for himself.

The pointed anti war ballad “Man Of War” points to the Jackson’s’ future Utopian vision of unity over conflict. This more than any other Jackson’s album from the mid/late 70’s really pointed the most to an individual musical and conceptual direction for the brothers.And even though this is still a very much ignored part of their recorded legacy that should at least be taken into consideration.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Poetic Champions Compose’ by Van Morrison

Van Morrison followed his 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher  with one of his best albums of the decade. And perhaps one of the grandest achievements of his career. This album found Van reaching back into the flavors that has made his music such a treasure and creating a musical tapestry that will stick right to your soul. In fact there are elements of this album that do recall his breakthrough twenty years before this with the genre defying/defining Astral Weeks. The music is a mix of mid,down and uptempo songs with a strong jazz and classic pop flavor.

This man is not only someone mindful of blues/R&B. But on this album,  he is clearly bringing the breezy orchestral pop/jazz flavors of Nat King Cole and Burt Bacharach before him. Van plays piano,sax,harmonica and guitar throughout this album and on the back of the CD you’ll find little pictures of Van playing these instruments. That is kind of appropriate for this album as it starts of with a lushly orchestrated jazzy sax instrumental “Spanish Skies”,perfect for an evening at a really elegant cafe or night spot or just a stroll on a warm moonlit evening with a loved one perhaps.

The like minded instrumental “Celtic Excavation” showcases the same flavor and both tunes are significant highlights of this album. There are of course plenty of his classic mid tempo Celtic soul type tunes in “The Mystery”, “Queen Of The Slipstream”, “I Forgot That Love Existed”, “Give Me The Rapture” and “Allow Me”. These songs all have more of a jazz/nightclub type groove than anything on the more folk influenced arrangements on the previous album. And are very much a production update of Van’s classic sound he made so distinctive for himself during the 70’s.

His version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” is  a  beautiful expression of the joy and pain of personal isolation. And the arrangement here carries the song right along from start to finish. “Alan Watts Blues” is one of the more rhythmic songs here that actually has a light jazz-pop-funk flavor to it. In some ways, it recalls some similarly styled music on his 1980 album Common One. One song that stuck out strongly to me was “Did You Get Healed?”. As soon as I heard the upbeat soul/gospel rhythm and the melodic female backup vocals I realized this is a song  before.

Had heard “Did You Get Healed?”  many times as young man, in fact. Played around the house by my father. It struck me as a hummable tune I’d enjoyed. And had  now found it’s way back into my life. . In terms of his output of this decade this album is one of his musically most  strong and rich. All of the songs on this album will likely take you into a musical experience-with their fluid sound and depth of soul. And along with the many great icons of soul, I cannot think of many artists I’ve listened to over the years who’ve been able to produce the same accomplishment seemingly at a whim.

 

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Funk Revelations Of 1987: “Just Gets Better With Time” by The Whispers

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In much the same manner as Earth Wind & Fire, The Whispers took a hiatus of several years after 1984. Those four years were ones where the Caterpillar of funk and soul were in an interesting chrysalis. And ready to re-emerge with a captivating butterfly of classic structures with contemporary dressing. This was 1987. The group were still on the Solar label and were about to burst out with something that was…not quite unexpected. But in terms of it’s impact? I have a feeling this was at least a little surprising.

“I Want You” is a pounding Minneapolis/Jam & Lewis style dance/funk jam while “Special F/X” is deep,pulsing synth based number with accenting rhythm guitars-funk that’s also very much informed by the groups choral vocal harmonies. “Rock Steady” is a big,synth brassy uptempo dance/funk monster with an irresistible melody and that hook that made it so famous. “No Pain,No Gain” is a pounding,gritty mid tempo synth funker while “In The Mood” and “Give It To Me” are soulful urban contemporary jazz/pop ballads while the title song and “Love’s Calling” have that doo-wop shuffle the Whispers were always renowned for in terms of slow jams.

One of the best things about this album is that,typical of Whispers albums,it was able to feature nothing but strong songs and performances that were moving forward in step from their time. With people such as Babyface participating in the writing? Many of the grooves on this album strongly benefit from the freestyle dance and new jack based uptempo approaches.

Those were the cutting edge  styles that were then beginning to add a heavy new muscle to funk oriented dance music of the late 1980’s. This album and it’s hits easily stands with the best of such releases of the 1987-1989 time frame. And did so from a thoroughly vocal group perspective. Definitely worth picking up for 80’s funk and dance admirers as well as Whispers fans!

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘The Cost Of Loving’ by The Style Council

The Cost Of Loving is an album that I’ve heard many times. And have a special affinity for. Paul Weller’s earlier records for with the Style Council were fairly diverse musically  And they met with mixed results from both fans and critics. . For the most part, the results of this album commercially weren’t mixed. And they weren’t that great either.  Its possible that lack of accolades this album receives has to do with this music by and large is not only uptempo. But is based in different varieties of funk. The Style Council themselves went through an interesting process in the conception of this album too.

Some of the tracks from this album were also featured in a short film The Style Council made called JerUSAlem.  The album itself was recorded in the autumn of 1986. But was released early in 1987. And its overall sound is very much bound to the international musical explosions pf that year. Obviously inspired by the music that Jam & Lewis were putting out during this time period “It Didn’t Matter” resulted in,musically one of the finest singles the band had put together thus far with it’s strong synth bass line,rhythm guitar and fairly slow dance beat-great in the mid 80’s funk context.

“Right To Go” is just out and out funk with one of the finest and most obvious bass lines of any of their songs and features an Reagan/Thatcher-based political rap by the UK’s own Dynamic Three. “Heavens Above” ups the tempo a bit and concentrates heavily on the drumming and the rhythm and a well executed use of horns. On “Fairy Tales” and the title song there’s a bit more of a balance between the slower beat and the horn oriented sound. There are also three ballads here in “Waiting”,which is beautifully structured 80′ soul in the same way as the Dee C Lee sung “Angel” and “A Woman’s Song” are.

Perhaps it was the heavy funk and R&B content from someone like Weller, who apparently had other expectations of himself, from the following he had earlier. Earlier Style Council music by and large focused on 60’s R&B and soul-jazz. With only the occasional nod to this type of music. And with very sleek production as well. However this album thoroughly acknowledged the 70’s in the music. And because of the closeness to that decade maybe it wasn’t given the kind of recognition it  deserves. Especially considering the high quality of the songwriting,musicianship and general atmospherics.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Touch The World’ by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire had slowly declined in commercial success during the early 80’s. But even then? They still had enough momentum from their still recent classic run of the late 70’s to sustain them creatively and with the public. Still, the pressures of losing members due to creative differences, plus the effects of the post disco freeze out, was beginning to take it’s tole on a band who’d always been able to adapt to musical changes at every point.

In 1987 the bands core Maurice and Verdine White, Phillip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Andrew Woolfolk were convinced by Columbia to reunite. They added guitarists Sheldon Reynolds, fresh from The Commodores and Dick Smith along with drummer Sonny Avery and a brand new horn section called the Earth Wind & Fire horns. The result is probably the first major comeback album experienced in my personal memory.

“System Of Survival” begins the album with with a very fast paced horn packed call and response type modern dance/funk jam dealing with the disintegrating effects of Reagan era trickle down economics. “Evil Roy” is an even harder edged,somewhat slower tempo’d groove with a strong bass/guitar interaction illustrating the slice of life tale of a drug pusher.

“Thinking Of You” is a kalimba-led melodic pop-jazzy jam with some creamy vocal exchanges from Maurice and Phillip.”You And I”,”Every Now And Then” and “Here Today And Gone Tomorrow” are all mid-tempo,melodic funk ballads that function as an update of the Charles Stepney era EWF school of balladry. “New Horizons” references samples of songs like “Shinning Star”,”That’s The Way Of The World”,”Reasons”,Serpentine Fire” and “Magnetic” before going into a fast paced,digitized synthesizer jazz-fusion led by an Andrew Woolfolk sax solo.

“Money Tight” is a stomping,electrified hard funk number dealing with the matter of unemployment. The title song is a shuffling mid tempo gospel number-featuring White,Bailey and Reynolds vocally illustrating how individual people’s lives of turmoil effect others. “Victim Of The Modern Heart” has a powerfully jazzy melodic exchange and another show stopping vocal from Bailey.

This album is one of those that I had the privilege to experience the moment it came out. It was an enormous family event when the cassette tape was bought into the this. “System Of Survival” and “Evil Roy” were showing up on the FM dial on car rides around the town while my father gave me the chance to tune into the music videos to these songs via Friday Night Videos. It was a proud experience for me, a young man growing up in semi rural Northeast Maine in the mid/late 1980’s, to hear music that not only had a strong social consciousness but offered hope for a better future.

It’s proud to know that this album might’ve been a successful entry point to EWF for people of the late Gen X age group living in areas that may not have had access to see them in a concert setting,and where funky music wasn’t as emphasized in the culture. Overall,a very successful entry for EWF into being able to fully integrate electronics into what amounts to a total revisit to their classic sound and musical spirit.

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