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Donna Summer’s ‘I Remember Yesterday’ LP at 40: So Good,So Good To Feel The Love

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Donna Summer was someone whose full musical impact didn’t hit me at all until I was a grown adult. The discovery of her music recorded with Giorgio Moroder in the mid to late 70’s also helped me to alter my perception of disco. It wasn’t merely a medium of elongated singles meant for dancers of one particular generation. It was also utilized in different album length concepts reflecting the mainstream social revolutions of the 60’s and 70s-both real and fantasy based. Summer’s late 70’s with Moroder were among the most prominent disco albums reflecting this particular ethic.

I Remember Yesterday is an album of Summer’s with Moroder that interested me because it ended with “I Feel Love”,a song I first heard at the exact same time I was just starting to listen to Kraftwerk. Wanted to know what concept Summer,Moroder and Pete Bellote came up with together for an album with ended with what still often sounds like a totally futuristic song in 2017. A few years ago,I wrote a review on Amazon.com that goes deeper into how each individual song on the album. And how it all comes together into its overall concept.


Representing the final installment of what turned out to be a trilogy of concept albums released by Donna Summer on Casablanca records in 1976 and 1977,this album took a slight different approach to it’s music. Generally speaking musical concept tend to work on a floating timeline. Dream sequences,memories of the future,etc all work their way into lyrics at different times.

Well it doesn’t work that way here. Donna and Giorgio both were aware their musical interests worked on a timeline,even extending a bit before they were born. So the concept of this album wasn’t as much lyrical as it was cultural and moreover musical. It’s a journey from music’s past to an anticipated future. And as a musical timeline?I’m sure no one knew how spot on it would turn out to be.

The title song starts out the entire album…well in the best possible place: the big band swing era. As seen through the filter of the 4/4 beat,this brassiness (similar in flavor to Dr.Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band) showcases the origins of what they call Broadway disco. On the very catchy “Love’s Unkind” we’ve entered what sounds like some girl group/brill building type wall of sound.

And on “Back In Love Again” it’s total Holland/Dozier/Holland style Motown memories for Donna in a Supremes state of mind. By “Black Lady” there’s some fuzzed keyboards and we’re more into the 70’s blacksploitation funk era. “Take Me”,with it’s mix of dance rhythms and bass moog synthesizer and the lush ballad “Can’t We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over)” are very much at present tense.

Of course the most talked about song here is “I Feel Love”,the closer representing the future. And especially now one realizes this is probably the birth of the electropop genre. Pulsing electronics inspired by the German dance music scene along with the repetitive vocal lines from Donna and flavor of an almost robotic orgiastic atmosphere,it’s the direction the parade was headed especially with new wave and even people as recent as Lady Gaga.

If Donna Summer never goes down in history for anything else it’ll be singing that one song. It’s also important to note this album also kind of takes you on an entertaining history through the eyes of the “black lady”. On the title song,she wants to dance the night away on a romantic adventure. By songs such as “Black Lady” and even “I Feel Love” she wants to experience life and sex on her own terms. And deal with the sensations on her own. It’s cultural marker,as well as musical ones are what makes this a very special album for 70’s era Donna Summer.


I Remember Yesterday remains one of my favorite full Donna Summer albums of the late 70s. One reason is how the albums takes a journey through time as an elongated musical continuum. It showcases how the 4/4 beat,an oft criticized element of the disco era, actually was part of music extending up through the different tributaries of rock n roll. This album focuses on music that has made people want to dance over the last few decades of the 20th century before it came out. And as such, I Remember Yesterday may be one of the most important musical statements of the disco era.

 

 

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Off The Record: Andre’s Review Of The 2013 Solo Release From Kraftwerk’s Karl Bartos

During his time as a member of Kraftwerk, Karl Bartos was apparently something of a musical archivist-using a number of tape machines to record different synthesizer ,computer and electric keyboard loops and snippets that were floating around as raw material as Kraftwerk were producing the music that would be so massively influential to future generations. Karl knew they would probably be of some use to him,someday.

But he didn’t know exactly when. Then came a period between 2010 and this release where,in the midst of conceptualizing his next album,he decided it was now appropriate to construct some type of form out of all the unfinished bits and pieces he had taped during Kraftwerk’s fruitful constructivist period. So he added his own new album concept into fleshing out these musical archives,and the result is this new album.

Not surprisingly this album has the flavor of a classic Kraftwerk album in their heyday. But there’s a very strong individual flavor as well. “Atomium” opens the album,a very orchestral and cinematic venture atypical of Kraftwerk’s more stripped down approach. It sounds like the opening of a feature film almost until snippets of vocoderized conversation about the rise and fall of the atomic age kick in,and one realizes it’s something else.

“Nachtfahrt”,”International Velvet” and even the largely instrumental closer “Hausmusik” are all happily melodic,minimal electronic pop firmly in the late 70’s Kraftwerk tradition of the form. “Without A Trace Of Emotion” and “The Tuning Of The World” strike more somber chords,as a longing for a grand creative subculture and,with no irony lost,a sense of humanity even in electronic music making up the lyrical form of these songs.

“The Binary Code” is a nearly two minute embodiment of “the video game sound” synthesizer composition in action,likely a taped loop unmixed from it’s approach. The almost industrial house approach of “Musica Ex Machina” as well as the far more experimental sound abstractions of “Instant Bayreuth”,”Vox Humana” and “Rhythmus”. These songs are a lot more complex rhythmically and melodically. And sound as if they come from the mid 80’s as Kraftwerk were regrouping to record as they reflect the influence of electro-funk/hip-hop to some degree.

There is a flavor to this album of a compilation of unreleased Kraftwerk material. But if one digs a little deeper there’s quite a lot more of Karl Bartos the individual as well. He has a thoughtful and reflective personality,illustrated in the in depth liner notes on this CD,that comes across loud and clear on his musical and lyrical choices. It’s an excellent recording I highly recommend to anyone who has a strong interest in Kraftwerk and the electronic music revolution in general.

Originally written as an Amazon.com customer review on March 22nd,2013

 

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Gregg Allman 1947-2017: The 70’s Allman Brothers Years & A Tribute To The Late Midnight Rider

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Gregg Allman, interestingly enough, had an interest in medicine growing up. In particular dentistry. Despite childhood rivalry with his older Duane,the Nashville native formed the Allman Brothers Band (as a keyboardist) with Duane and Dickey Betts. While years of drug abuse likely contributed to Allman’s fairly young passing at the age of 69 this past Saturday,the music he created with the Allman Brothers Band was not merely innovating Southern rock. But also allowing for long,instrumentally focused songs with jazz and funk elements helped expand the basic framework of countrified 70’s rock.

My personal chance to see Gregg Allman performed with the Allman Brothers Band was deferred. As I understand it,he was unable to appear with the band as one of the opening acts for the now deceased (and musical hero) B.B. King because of a reappearance of liver cancer with him. The concert was a bit of a fiasco in some ways. At the same time,it got my into exploring the Allman Brothers’ earlier albums. There’s much more I have to look into. But today,wanted to review my Amazon.com reviews of the Allman’s first four studio albums released from 1969 to 1973.


The Beginning (1969-70)

A few years ago when I was first getting heavily into beginning my collection of music from The Allman Brothers Band? There was an inner debate going on about how exactly to purchase their first two albums. Realizing these were considered the major cornerstone of their catalog? The two choices had an awkward wrinkle between them. Both albums were available separately on CD.

Yet so was this edition-both released unedited on a single CD. One of the reviews I read here actually mentioned the debut being remixed for this set. Still it was finding an used original CD edition of this double set at a reduced price (under $5) that decided me. After all,it’s all about the musical content in cases like this. And on that level?PHEW! What an set this is!

“Don’t Want To Bear No More” is a percussive,organ based instrumental while “It’s Not My Cross To Bear”,a cover of Muddy Water’s “Trouble No More” and “Dreams are more deeply blues oriented pieces. “Black Hearted Woman” and “Every Hungry Woman” are both riff heavy power blues/rock pieces.

“Whipping Post” blends an atmospheric jazzy rock flavor with yet more of a blues flavor. “Revival” opens the second album in this set with a rousing uptempo jam based in rhythm guitar/bass/organ interaction at it’s core. “Don’t Keep Me Wondering”,”Midnight Rider” and a version of “Hoochie Coochie Man” again deal with the shuffling blues again.

“Please Come Home” is a slowed down,classic Southern Rock ballad while “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” is a creamy guitar/organ led Latin jazz/rocker while “Leave My Blues Alone” ends the album with a thickly grooving power blues number. Both of these albums taken together have the effect of being part one and part two.

The powerful presence of Duane and Gregg Allman,along with drummer Jai Johanny Johanson really give this band the sort of jamming instrumental jazz/rock improvisational touch that set them in a class by themselves from many of the more pop oriented Southern rockers who came after them. Whatever way you pick these up? These are absolute essentials to build any Allman Brothers collection.

Eat A Peach/1972

The Allman Brothers Band,as led by Dicky Betts,are one of the few famous bands I’ve had the pleasure of seeing perform live. Their facility,even without an absently ill Gregg Allman on the keys,on elongated grooving jams is something worth hearing on the stage if the opportunity arises. Of course this album had a difficult place in Allman Brothers history.

It would have to be the transition from the original band led by Duane,who died in a motorcycle crash at the end of 1971 and the Dicky Betts led group that would come later. The juxtaposition of talents in this band seems to be of a sort that could have a domino effect if not handled very carefully. Luckily the way in which this album pulls that off really does the trick.

“Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” and “Stand Back” are both hard grooving funk/rock jams that are loaded with Dicky’s Mississippi Delta blues flavor. “Melissa” and “Blue Sky” are more mellow countrified numbers filled with soulful melodies “Les Brers In A Minor” begins with Betts’ psychedelicized lead guitar before going into another of those great percussive 9+ Allman jams.

The middle core of this album was the last recordings from when Duane was alive-recorded at the Fillmore East. The highlight of this is “Mountain Jam”-an over half hour epic that is essentially several different songs: a guitar improvisation of Donovan’s “There Is A Mountain”,than a massive drum solo from Jai Johanny Johnson,a funkified electric bass solo from Berry Oakley and than a Southern Soul ballad before going back to the original theme.

Two faithful and amazingly played blues covers of Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More” and Elmore James “One Way Out” round out the Fillmore set while the bluegrass guitar picking of “Little Martha” closes things out. Black Rock Coalition member/lead guitarist of Living Colour Vernon Reid claims this album as being a huge part of his musical education. Listening to it I can see why. It finds a band of musicians of different sorts bringing their different styles into clear focus.

The country slide guitar twang along with Dicky and Duane’s wonderful feel for the blues,along with the percussive drumming approach leads to enormous levels of instrumental improvisation here that puts the Southern Rock genre the Allman’s help pioneer into perspective between the psychedelic soul/rock and jazz fusion of Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis respectively. One of the most fluidly musicinaly rock ‘n’ roll albums I’ve heard from the early 70’s!

Brothers & Sisters/1973

It would seem that a metaphorical specter of death was hanging over the Allman Brothers in the early 70’s When they were just hitting their very early stride as a recording entity? First band founder Duane is killed in an accident. Then during the making of their follow up without him,bassist Berry Oakley dies as well.

Dicky Betts, Gregg Allman and the remaining members made what turned out to be the very good decision of soldiering on without their two departed fellow band members and creative guiding lights. Being that they still celebrated an improvisational spirit? They actually found a functional way to adapt their sound to suit the circumstances.

“Wasted Words” starts out the album with a piano driven Stonsey blues/rocker. The electric organ fueled and more jazzy “Come And Go Blues” as well as the classic urban blues wailing of “Jelly Jelly” pretty much keep that essential core going right along with it. The bigger successes here ended up being the huge hit “Ramblin Man” with,along with the somewhat more instrumentally inclined “Jessica” showcase a sleeker and more relaxed sounding melodic variation of their Southern Rock approach.

“Southbound” brings a percussively shuffling funky soul rhythm to the affair and brings out some of the bands more jazzy improvisational instrumental spirit again “Pony Boy” closes out the album with a fast paced acoustic 12 bar blues.

Actually this is the very first Allman Brothers CD I ever saw. When I was 16,a friend of mine named Jeff gave me some things he was about to put in a yard sale and a copy of this album on CD was among them. I listened to it and intended to keep it. When he told me the CD went in the box he gave me by accident? I of course gave it back.

But I was happy to hear it a second time,after getting a copy of my own and realizing just how well the Allman’s musical broad mindedness helped them to survive as a band even when circumstances would seem to dictate otherwise. This album lacks the elongated instrumental approach they had with Duane and Berry in the band. But they were gaining another kind of ground. And even even greater commercial success while they were at it. And so they’d continue for decades to come after this!


Gregg Allman is survived by five children by from a number of his female partners and wives over the years. Most famously his now 40 year old son with Cher Elijah Blue-lead singer of the nu metal band Deadsy. Devon,four years older, is also the lead singer of a band called Honeytribe. No matter makes mark his progeny make on music in the future, what Allman did as a member of the Allman Brothers,despite personal problems between him and the group,was the most history making music he was associated with.

 

 

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The Aura Of Miles Davis: A Story About Miles’ Final Columbia Album

Miles Davis began 1985 having just received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, which is the highest musical honor in the country of Denmark, in the last month of the previous year. Danish composer Palle Mikkelborg was so inspired by Miles’ achievement that he composed that he decided to compose a suite for him to record. The only major arranger Miles Davis had continually worked with before was Gil Evans. And even later on in their collaborations, Evans wasn’t as fully involved as he’d been when he’d helped to begin Miles’ career as a bandleader with the 1949 album Birth Of The Cool.

The album that came from Mikkelborg and Miles’ collaboration was called Aura. It was recorded early in 1985. Miles Davis was in the process of leaving Columbia for Warner Bros Records at the time. Despite the historic three decade association between Miles and Columbia, Aura wasn’t released until 1989 due to a contractual conflict of interest. It was music of many moods flowing together. It was composed based on notes corresponding to all the initials of Miles Davis’s first and last name. As for the rest of the album, I wrote an Amazon.com 9 years ago that digs deeper into what Aura was and still is.


Miles Davis,just about to leave Columbia records after a lucrative 30 year career with the label turned to Danish composer and musician Palle Mikkelborg to record a ten piece suite in Copenhagen in the late winter of 1985. After a frenetic fusion intro there are nine compositions titled after different colors of the “aura”: white,yellow, orange,red, green, blue,electric red,indigo and violet. Most of these songs,while musically very much in keeping with the early 80’s part of the “electric Miles” period showcase impressionistic “sound paintings” that not only bare a striking resemblance to Miles’ work with Gil Evans on albums like Sketches of Spain at least in terms of arrangement.

The main difference is that on these Miles plays against the melody most the time rather then with it,which while very much in the jazz improvisation tradition gives the music that sense of organized chaos common in Miles’ electric music:the idea melodies and rhythms that are completely different from each other and never coming to a resolution.In this context it could be seen as mixing different shades to make primary colors. The only really funky tune here is “Orange” which is indeed very fiery in nature. “Electric Red” and “Violet” are a slower burning kind of groove whereas “Blue” expresses a light reggae feeling for another musical “color”.

“Indigo” is the only real acoustic piece here. Some of these songs also feature the guitar of John McLaughlin who worked with Miles back in his Bitches Brew days. While the complex,almost ambient nature of ‘Aura’ might qualify elements of this album as off putting and some jazz fans might find some of these songs leaning towards the new age sound it is definitely one of the more unique and individual recordings in Miles’ vast catalog and he has many.


Aura is a true example of why albums matter a lot with instrumental jazz musicians such as Miles. When I first heard it,it was in the form of 30 second previews at a listening station when the remastered CD first came out. It sounded like dull electronic “new age” music in that context. And always avoided it. Upon purchasing the CD later and listening to it, it became clear these were songs that developed in sound and even genre as they went along. In that context,its innovative orchestrated jazz fusion. Therefore I recommend seeking out the Aura album on its own terms-to take in its brilliance.

*Listen to the funkiest song on this album called “Orange” here!

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Go For Your Guns: 40 Years Of A Funky Voyage To Atlantis With The Isley Brothers

Go For Your Guns

Go For Your Guns is an album whose 40th anniversary occurred over a month ago. And it was something that pretty much demanded to be over viewed here. My interest in the Isley’s 70’s music flowed from Rickey Vincent’s book on funk during that time. He referred to them as the epitome of funky manhood-with Chaka Khan as the female equivalent of the time. How I ended up with a CD of  Go For Your Guns is a story in and of itself. And has a good deal to do with my great appreciation of this album over the years. Its actually included in my Amazon.com review I’ll include here.


Normally I tend not to do this. But there’s a personal connection with this album in my own life surrounding this album. During the Ice Storm of 1998,power was half out and everyone everywhere in the state of Maine was snowed in and/or iced in. It was an uncomfortably claustrophobic environment. The second day out,the driveway was cleared out just enough so people could get in and out of it. So we all ended up taking a drive to the nearby Borders Books & Music where,in their music section,they’d actually open and re-package a brand new CD if you wanted to listen to it.

I was in the R&B/soul section,where I always went first and say this album. I’d never heard any 70’s era Isley Brothers. Read about them during that period in Ricky Vincent’s Funk: The Music, The People, and The Rhythm of The One but had only heard them at that time via their newest album at the time Mission to Please. So I listened to the album and,since the price was exactly right for me that’s what I took home that night. I put my headphones on and listened. Listened in a context of great risk that the power might go out again and the family would swing into instant emergency mode. That didn’t happen. Yet this album made me feel very confident that better things were coming. Now,I’ll tell you why.

“Pride” starts the album out with some high octane wah wah and electric piano as Ron declares “when you finally break it on down/it’s your pride”-the Isley’s crowning manifesto of masculine consciousness that I think of as their most self defining funk jam of that era. With it’s creamily textured guitar and keyboard lines,the complicated melodic exchanges of the ballad type funk in “Footsteps In The Dark” evoke the lyrical imagery of a mature yet tentative romantic relationship with an uncertain future.

Chris Jasper’s pulsing synthesizer seems to call out from both above and below the spongy and melodic funk of “Tell Me That You Need It Again”-with Ron’s strong minded seduction oozing out of both the music and lyrics as well as the Isley’s ever did during this era. “Climbin’ Up The Ladder” goes right for the jugular of Ernie Isley’s guitar for a furious rocker with a clean,tight bluesy melody-again with Ron in his powerfully growling lower vocal range.

“Voyage To Atlantic” is a slower rocker focusing on an elaborate romantic fantasy. “Livin’ In The Life” and the instrumental companion title song are some of the most flat out amazing music the Isley Brothers ever made. It is the probably the most effective heavy metal funk ever made. The groove is solid and tight. Yet the synthesizers and Ernie’s guitar on the title song assault the music with a heavy biting steel. So the song accomplishes everything by embodying both funk’s instrumental cleanliness and rock’s instrumental passion.

Overall the one quality that defines this album is complete and utter confidence. It isn’t all necessarily testosterone fueled male ego by any means. Ron Isley goes out of his way to try to bring the feminine characters in this song to understand where he’s coming from-tending to respect their intelligence rather than demean them. More over however,on both an instrumental and vocal level,this album comes at the listener with the fervor of a sociopolitical musical preacher.

Some of the messages are non specific enough to be appealing to just about everybody,but the message is that love of the world begins with self confidence you can bring out in others. And the Isley’s all had plenty of reason to be confident with this album. As the 70’s wore on they gained progressively more and more control over every aspect of their music-from writing,producing and arrangement. Of course it wouldn’t be long after this that this would turn into some ugly ego regarding the generational differences of how the two sets of brothers conducted creative matters.

I do think that the strong level of confidence this album projects gives the listener the most positive overall view of the funk era. It certainly affirmed my appreciation of the music during a tense time for those around me even. And even at times when my confidence in funk itself was swayed for whatever reason? This album reminded me of what I loved about the music that no one could ever mistaken the sentiments of. So in that context along with the high quality music,this is one of a handful of funk albums I recommend as downright essential.


Go For Your Guns is album that hit me the moment I heard it,had the same effect when writing this review and its likely it always will. The Isley Brothers,especially during the 3+3 era combining the two generations of brothers in the family,dominated their funk in the recording studio much the same way they dominated the stage when performing live. Their music and persona was always a smoldering,passionately poetic funky fire that burns very strongly on every song on this album. Encourage all of you reading this who haven’t yet heard the album to check it out. You might just have a similar reaction.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Con Funk Shun’s ‘Secrets’ Album Turns 40: The Anti Sophomore Slump Funk Classic

Con Funk Shun (since they’ve recently reunited) remain a band with a strong personal connection to both me and friend/co-founder of Andresmusictalk Henrique Hopkins. For Henrique,it was a being childhood friends with Dameion Harrell-son of the bands sax player/flutist Paul Harrell. For me,the personal connection came from their 1979 jam “Chase Me” being part of that often discussed first long form exposure to funk via the compilation The Best Of The Funk Essentials. Somehow or other,the bands sound (along with Earth Wind & Fire) became a strong criteria for 70’s funk in my listening tastes.

Their 1977 album Secrets,which celebrated its 40th anniversary on March 25th, was reissued on CD during the mid 90’s funk reissue boom. I found it at the local Borders Books & Music. They’d let you listen to CD’s in a player behind the counter-since they had equipment to reseal opened media at the time. Having just learned that this had been the bands second album,hearing it really went against the film/music/literature cliche of the sophomore slump. All nine of the songs on this album were consistently excellent. And that was heavily reflected in my Amazon.com review of the album.


On their sophomore release these Vallejo California natives actually sharpen up a good deal of the harder edged elements of their sound found on 1976’s Con Funk Shun and develop something of a new flavor to their sound. Seen by many people who,as I was at first familiar with the band through compilations as something of a fully west coast answer to EWF.

Now that has some truth to it and not too. While bandleader Felton Pilate and Michael Cooper have similar vocal exchanges to Maurice White/Phillip Bailey and their harmony based,melodic groove sounds do have a passing similarity Con Funk Shun don’t concentrate as much of their concepts as they do instrumental exchanges and songwriting. And this particular album features endless examples of their new style.

Despite the hard driving nature of the hit “Ffun” and “ConFunkShunIzeYa” these two horn heavy grooves are by no means indicative of the entire album as a whole “DoWhaChaWannaDo”,with it’s elegent mix of melodic arrangements,on time rhythm and strong craft showcases this as music that stands directly in between th earlier,classic “united funk” and the pre disco sophistifunk style.

This also shows up on the smoother,more midtempo grooves of “Who has The Time” and the title cut,both powered by wah wah’s,heavily reverbed rhythm guitars and sultry harmonies. The outright ballads “Tear In My Eye” and “I’ll Set You Out OK” have all the sitar/orchestration effects of classic Northern soul with all the melody intact. “Indian Summer Love”,an uptempo instrumental showcasing the jazzier end of the bands sound has a George Benson/Wes Montgomery/Bobby Broom style guitar exchange between Michael and Felton that is pure icing on the cake.

Honestly have purchased this during the time I was really thoroughly exploring the funk genre I’d recommend this and other albums like it to those people who think they don’t like funk or find it “annoying”,an all too common phrase I hear sadly. It’s melodic enough to show how wonderful music in the groove can be. Also the instrumental ability of the band is more than strong enough to make this great for more serious listening as well.

Always mildly ignored and under praised when compared to some of their contemporaries with more name recognition (The Commodores,Ohio Players, Kool & The Gang and The Bar Kays come to mind), Con Funk Shun had a definite niche carved out as among the smoother of them all. But smooth FUNK,not just smooth grooves and that’s important to distinguish. So one will likely just put this on and take the ride with them because it will be a happy surprise for anyone pretty much.


Con Funk Shun’s Secrets album was part of a huge array of funk classics that came out in 1977. To use writer Rickey Vincent’s terminology, albums of this kind stood as a transitional one between the early/mid 70’s “united funk” era and the later 70’s “dance funk” one. It was definitely a melodic album that was extremely catchy and singable. At the same time the combinations of rhythms,horns,synthesizers and bass/guitar interaction really typified the junction right between these two eras of funk music’s development. That makes Secrets one of the most important funk albums of its era.

 

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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