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Bruno Mars: Memories Of Doo Wops & Hooligans

Bruno Mars has symbolized how much the 2010’s have seen an occasional (sometimes too minor) rebirth of song and instrumental oriented soul/funk/pop music. And that’s of course speaking strictly on a commercial level. A child star in his native Honolulu, the man born  Peter Jean Hernandez continued to perform covers in LA after a failed stint with Motown before becoming a well known songwriter. What interests me most about him is how he recorded his full length 2010 debut album with a live band called The Hooligans. Who are with him to this day. As for that album itself…..


The first time I heard the name Bruno Mars when at a summer pride festival when a local band in my area called The Blast Addicts did a version of his song “The Lazy Song”. I’d seen this album around but paid it little attention. Over time I’ve had more exposure to his young hipster attitude and his inspired state show,I began to realize this might just be a talent worth exploring.

It’s been a very long time since I heard an artist whose songs were inspiring interpretation so early in the game. While references to him as “the new Michael Jackson” were a complete turn off at first,considering how few artists will ever likely live up to a vibrant talent on the level of MJ again, But what was this man going to have to say on his own terms?

The first two songs on this album “Grenade” and “Just The Way You Are” do in fact possess that epic production sound so common today,however the pop-soul song craft of the compositions themselves are really quite amazing. My personal favorite track here is the slinky funk/reggae of “Our First Time”,with it’s beautifully jazzy chord changes.

“Runaway Baby” is a high octane,guitar based funk rocker where “The Lazy Song” pulls pop,soul,funk and light hip-hop rhythms together for a song celebrating the sometimes slacker spirit of youth. The same impulse carries on into the sparse new wave style “Marry You”,though this time seeking a commitment through naivety. “Talking To The Moon” is a moody,reflective piano based ballad.

Damian Marley shows up for the heavy reverbed reggae of “Liquor Store Blues”,an ode to drowning sorrows where “Count On Me” is a sweet little acoustic based song with a strong Caribbean flavor. The ending finds Mars as a soul man supreme on the heavily Stax inspired “The Other Side” recorded,of course with Cee Lo Green. Brimming with youthful charm and innocence this singer/songwriter/musician also shows great potential for a significant,long term creative expansion as he grows artistically.

He puts a great deal of thought into his writing and his musical ideas. And while it’s clear he operates on many levels firmly within the contemporary musical idiom,his basic musical flavors come out of 60’s and 70’s sunshine pop melodies-through the filters of the soul,funk and reggae music he clearly loves. Probably the idea pop album for this particular time period.


This review of Bruno Mars’s first album was written by me five years ago, around the time I was taking an interest in his second effort Unorthodox Jukebox. Bruno’s music has since then been covered more on this blog by my friend Henrique Hopkins. He really helped to bring songs like “24 Karat” and the already iconic “Uptown Funk” to my initial attention in the doing. In any case, always felt it wise to approach Bruno’s music in an album context on my end. And am starting with his first here. Which shows how much tremendous growth Bruno’s music has made in the years since he made his solo debut.

 

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Aja At 40: Welcome To The Land Of Steely Dan

Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja was an album whose success has been based far more on its quality than its commercial potential. In 2010, it was even inducted by the Library of Congress into their United States National Recording Registry. It even won a Grammy in the the year of its release for being the best engineered non classical record of the year. For me, it represented the precision musicianship of the jazz funk era musicians who played on the album at some of their personal best. Also in 2010, I wrote a review on Amazon.com about the album and how I personally heard it.


Time has a way of testing a work of art that might be today’s masterpiece but tomorrow’s rubbish pile. One would probably find that not only would this album ace such a test with flying colors but could actually still be considered something of a yardstick of it’s kind. I am not sure but before this album very little music that qualified as jazz-funk,fusion or pop/jazz ever quite had the same level of all around success this one had in pop and rock circles and especially among pop radio listeners. There are a couple reasons for this.

For one the music featured here is a fully realized refinement on what was accomplished with The Royal Scam and unlike that albums more jagged moments both the production and arrangements on this album are clean as a whistle. For another thing none of that took away from the daring and adventurous flavors here. So you have this mixture of elegance,sophistication and a strong groove that only those really in the know about funk can provide.

The production of the Clavinet on “Black Cow” pretty much tell the story and some of the songs people don’t remember as well here such as “Home At Last” and “I Got The News” there’s some of the most intricate and uniquely textured piano work Donald Fagen had committed to record thus far and trust me: on that area he’d more than earned a few brownie points already. The title song has one of the most complex melodic constructions your liable to find in a pop record.

And of course it’s not easy to get Steve Gadd’s amazing fusion style drum solo at the songs conclusion out of one’s memory even after the passing of time. The popular hits from this album “Deacon Blues” and of course “Peg” showcase another surprising element of this album. Those familiar with Steely Dan before this album realize lyrically they tended to specialize in warped tales,usually of people no one wanted to know. These songs maintain their lyrical style but the tales they tell are a bit more accessible in tone and are among the more lighthearted and quaint in their catalog.

Yeah they were probably making a few funnies about the stereotypical simplicity of pop music lyrics but….a lot of it just is what it is and that’s kind of different for their usually double meaning approach. “Josie” ends the album on a similar note although the lyrics on that one may be just a tad slinkier and the groove just mildly edgier. At this point you could say this was Steely Dan’s best overall album and it’s certainly their best known.

But it’s also important to know their “laboratory in the studio” approach to recording across their previous two albums really opened the door for this to happen. So this was the conclusion to a long enduring musical experiment rather than something that came out of this air. That taken into considering the amazing thing about this is…..all these years later it still doesn’t sound like a product of hard labor.


Aja was an album that I first heard playing in my family’s car “boom box” when, as I recall, we were going to pick apples. Its an excellent example of a record where the melodic and very welcoming jazz/funk fusion grooves of the album deflect from Steely Dan’s typically cryptic and “insider commentary” based nature of their lyrical content. There’s a lot on the musical end of this album that I was able to project into a YouTube video I did about the album recently.  Aja is a record I could go on and on about here. But in the end, its best for the music to do the talking in this case.

 

 

 

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Get It Together@44: The Jackson 5 Get A Brand New Thing

The Jackson 5 arrived at an important crossroads in 1973. Their recording career at Motown began with a string of four record breaking #1 pop and R&B hits for this literal band of brothers during 1969-1970. And the success continued fairly well over the next couple of years-with songs such as “Never Can Say Goodbye”,”Sugar Daddy” and “Little Bitty Pretty One”. By 1973, the youth appeal of the Jackson’s faded fast. These were now teenagers and young adults-with Tito Jackson already married and Jermaine engaged to be so. Was there a way for the Jackson’s to maintain their career in another way?

The mid 70’s arrived with changes to the music scene as well. The 2-3 minute,melodic and uptempo soul singles Motown had helped pioneer were giving way to a new sound. A cinematic,orchestrated sound with harder, funkier rhythms. The incoming funk era was based more on instrumentation than vocal groups singing refrain/chorus based songs. The Temptations had already taken this into account in the late 70’s-changing the base of their music to a more abstract “psychedelic soul” sound with the help of producer Norman Whitfield. Now it was time for the Jackson 5 to come of age.

The first Jackson 5 album of 1973 was Skywriter, a more musically diverse album that tried to offer more to the changing voice of 14 year old Michael Jackson. But the idea of a teenager singing so seriously about seduction on a cover of the Supremes song “Touch” went against the Jackson’s wholesome,youthful appeal. And (to me) wonderful songs such as the bluesy “The Boogie Man” and the more progressive funk/soul of the title song didn’t allow the album much success. It wouldn’t be until September 21st of that year that a change began to happen. Here’s what I wrote four years ago about it.


1973 was spelling out to be the year that would sink the Jackson 5’s thus far unbeatable luster at Motown. Skywriter and Michael’s solo album Music & Me had both been creative triumphs but huge creative failures. The brothers would all come to blame this on the fact that Motown was not welcoming their own input as songwriters and producers. In short,the Jackson’s were faltering because the realities of a music industry where artists were treated as commodities to be bought and sold had taken part of their innocence away.

Yet as the year progressed,Motown was suddenly no longer the mainstay of the pop/R&B scene anymore. The success from the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes had made Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International Records the main focus on that level all of a sudden. And this began to fascinate the Jackson’s and their creative team to an enormous degree.

Inspired by this,the Jackson’s elected to musically refocus some so it seems. And one day in the summer of 1995,I managed to find someone to locate the then extremely hard to find 80’s era cassette tape of this album-not having a clue what to expect. Now that its thankfully available on CD? I can at last illustrate to others lovers of funk,soul,R&B and Motown the many wonders that this album has to offer.

The title song opens up the album. Its filled with the string orchestrations of the Philly sound. But the primary rhythmic nature of are these powerful layers of wah wah guitar,bass lines and an almost reggae style bass/guitar bridge. Michael’s nearly matured singing is heard with all it’s James Brown styled cries and accents-his iconic future already firmly in place. “Don’t Say Goodbye Again” is another Philly type midtempo groove-with a rather more resigned and adult take on romantic loss.

“Reflections” is the only interpretation that is actually relatively close to the original song. The 8+ “Hum Along And Dance” bares hardly any resemblance to the Temptations/Norman Whitfield original. Breaking out with organ,rock guitars,intense percussion,an almost Police Siren type synthesizer line, the song is a psychedelic funk/soul/dance behemoth-closing with a rather Spiritual/gospel West Indian drum style and choral vocal harmonies-with a mild Native American influence as well.

“Mama I Got A Brand New Thing” is another elongated number punctuated by a strumming acoustic style guitar and zig zagging and melodic synthesizer lines. “It’s Too Late To Change The Time” is right on time with Leon Ware acknowledging the rise of the reggae genre musically with the melodic,harpsichord led hook of a classic Jackson 5 number.

The lyrics have a reflective observation of the world at that time as well. “You Need Love Like I Do (Don’t You)” is a bassy, hand jive led funk number with a driving bass and harmonies that segues into the original full version of “Dancing Machine”-which led the way towards what would soon become the disco era of course.

Not too long after this album was released,the title song became a decent sized hit-though not to the level I feel it deserved. That being said? The albums last song “Dancing Machine” is the song that,when released as a single edit the following year ended up completely changing the Jackson 5’s commercial fortunes and bringing them their first top of the charts single since their 3 hit punch in 1970,really. In a way,this would become the last album of the Jackson 5 as part of the Motown family.

The two albums released in the two years following this album were released during a period of legal battles as they sought to split themselves from Motown for the purpose to gaining the creative control they felt they required for their music to succeed and grow further. This albums elements of funk,orchestrated soul and different world music/psychedelic instrumental turns led to this not only being something of a fully unified album statement for the Jackson’s.

But also heavily reflective of the transition from the funk era (in which this album was released during) and the disco era which would come later in the decade,and in which the by then creatively liberated Jackson’s would be a huge part of. But the road to that album starts right here-probably the Jackson brothers first fully formed and mature creative musical statement.


Get It Together was, and continues to be, possibly my very favorite full length album by the Jackson 5. I emphasize albums because of a conversation with my father when I first purchased this album. He wondered why I was at all interested in a full Jackson 5 album that wasn’t a greatest hits set. When I asked him why, he described the band as inconsistent. I didn’t know what the term meant then. But now, it does bring up an important point about how the Jackson 5 were perceived then. This was a carefully crafted cycle-with all songs flowing into the other for a strong album funk sound.

In terms of the Jackson’s music for Motown, Get It Together might’ve been the beginning of the end in terms of the bands love affair with what the label could offer them. Still, this was truly their coming of age album. Mike’s vocal hiccups, a trademark of his blockbuster solo career, first showed up on this album. Norman Whitfield helped put the album together-utilizing future Commodores arranger/producer James Anthony Carmichael in the process. Members of Motown’s LA session musicians-among them Crusaders such as Joe Sample and Wilton Felder, played on the album as well.

What I personally remember most about Get It Together the intersection between myself and the Jackson’s at the time of first hearing it. I was about the same age at the time as Michael Jackson had been during the time he and his brothers recorded this album. And as with Mike, my own creative outlook (especially with music) was growing independent from that of my family and social acquaintances. That experience with Get It Together taught me that sense of creative independence is key to growing up. And I have the impression this album has impacted many others in similar ways.

 

 

 

 

 

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Steely Dan: The Early Years As A Duo-A Tribute To Walter Becker (1950-2017)

Steely Dan Early Years As A Duo

Steely Dan started life as a sextet that included musicians such as guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. By 1975, group founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were on their own. And their sound took on a sleek jazz funk sound as such-bringing in more session players from that field. A lot of this had to do with the founding members lack of interest in touring. Yesterday I woke up to the news from my boyfriend Scott that Walter Becker had passed away at the age of 67. Considering the bands relationship in their years as a duo, this essentially marked the official end of Steely Dan.

At the suggestion of Henrique Hopkins, I decided to wait a day or two in terms of writing about Becker and his music. After all, another friend in Thomas Carley already was doing some wonderful writing on Walter Becker-both as a member of Steely Dan, a solo artist and producer for people such as Ricki Lee Jones,China Crisis,Rosie Vela,Michael Franks and Fra Lippo Lippi. Woke up this morning to read a Rolling Stone article by one Rob Sheffield about Becker. This article mainly focused on Becker’s more negative “rock star” qualities. So decided there had to be another way to present Steely Dan.

In all honesty, the gritty and…cryptically jazzy poetry of Steely Dan’s lyrics have never detracted from my love of their music. Nor did it define everything about them. Becker, who according to Sheffield had the most attitude of the Dan’s founders, managed to balance (along with Fagen) the sometimes very sarcastic and cynical lyrics of Steely Dan with a romantic (and even relaxing) choice of words and a sound often defined by an extensive use of the processed Fender Rhodes piano. So as tribute to Walter Becker, wanted to present my two Amazon.com reviews of their first two albums as a duo.


Katy Lied/1975

Originally Steely Dan was a band featuring people like Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter. By this time Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had grown weary of the road the decided to stop touring and concentrate on their studio craft which,they felt was their strongest suit. They also broke up the band and Steely Dan became them as a duo plus the studio session musicians they hired for the sessions.

Even so during this time Becker and Fagen were not entirely sure how their sound was going to evolve from this point on so not only was the music on this album fairly tentative but Donald Fagen detested the recording quality of the album to such a degree he issued an apology to record buyers on the back of the original sleeve and didn’t desire to listen to this.

Well it’s not really that bad an album but it does find them beginning to re-imagine their sound with very mixed results. “Black Friday” and “Chain Lighting” are two of the best remembered songs here and even though nothing on this fared too well commercially these songs embrace a slick blues/rock flavor that Steely Dan really hadn’t emphasized in their music too much and really never would to this extent again.

“Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City Anymore” again showcases the same idea only with somewhat of a jazzier funk edge to it. A lot of the songs here are rather spare jazzy pop such as “Bad Sneakers”,”Rose Darling”,”Doctor Wu”,”Any World” and “Everyone’s Gone To The Movies”. Here also you see them really putting even more emphasis on their twisted character plays in the lyrics and things are becoming so metaphorical in that respect some of their lyrics are more impenetrable.

A second part of “Your Gold Teeth” and “Throw Back The Little Ones” show a stronger indication of their future sound,even to an extent Aja in terms of the intricate and complex jazzy arrangements and tempos. The best way to describe this is as transitional. Most of it is still very much in the same musical zone as their first three albums with a full band. But as with any retooled musical concept it takes time to both maintain AND refine a musical style and that’s basically where this album stands for Steely Dan in the context of their career.

The Royal Scam/1976

To be said Katy Lied had it’s definate moments but without any doubt this has to be Steely Dan’s most creatively and musically satisfying since Countdown To Ecstasy several years earler. Musically however the music couldn’t me more different. By this time Becker and Fagan had settled firmly into the studio oriented ethic they were hoping for but didn’t fully achieve with the previous album.

And even though this never got the recognition that what came after it did this is really the pair and the studio aces they surrounded themselves with at last finding their sound. What they really found is the funk. Now Steely Dan had ALWAYS been funky but in terms of the technically demanding rhythms and harmonics of the music,which naturally suited Becker & Fagen’s style anyway this album really finds them dipping into that area more than anything.

This was actually one of the earliest Steely Dan albums I owned and it was deep in my “funk period” so it worked pretty well. Yes true this album does feature a lot more guitars;Becker himself,Larry Carlton,Denny Dias,Dean Parks and Elliot Randell are all featured throughout this album and that’s a pretty big guitar army for these guys. Interestingly enough the guitars are used in a very jazzy funk way throughout as more of a textural sound element overall than just as soloing noise makers.

That’s exactly the effect you get on four of the albums strongest (and uptempo) cuts in the sharp,aggressive yet elegant funk styling’s of “Kid Charlemagne”,”Don’t Take Me Alive”,”The Fez” and the almost Songs in the Key of Life-period Stevie Wonder sounding “Green Earrings”. The Clavinet’s and keyboards used on these songs really add to the harmonic style as well.

Lyrically most of these songs are Steely Dan at their darkest:songs about misdirected anti heroes,youth bombers and domestic unrest are among the themes explored here and the good part is their presented in a wonderfully poetic and intelligent manner. “The Caves Of Altamira”,”Sign In Stranger” and the title song are all elaborate mid tempo jazz-funk-fusion explorations that really look the most to their sound to come although the dynamics are a bit looser than they would be in the immediate future.

“Everything You Did” and the lightly Caribbean flavored “Haitian Divorce” are closer to the breezy jazz-pop of the earlier Steely Dan but again produced very differently. Officially bidding farewell to their earlier band based sound this album finds Dan firmly on the way to Aja and if you listen to this album thoroughly you’ll realize that album was really the logical follow up.


These reviews were written seven years ago, right in between Fagen’s 2012 solo album Sunken Condos and what turned out to be Becker’s final solo release in 2008’s Circus Money. Becker and Fagen were always musical perfectionists. Both in terms of instrumentation and production. But with Katy Lied and The Royal Scam, their relationships with Crusaders’ Wilton Felder and Larry Carlton along with the great session bassist Chuck Rainey took their precision to the next level. And represent the best way for me to remember Walter Becker’s contributions to the Steely Dan’s sound.

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Chicago III: Singing A Mean Tune On The Lowdown

Chicago were coming into a very interesting place in American culture in 1971. They had released two successful double albums-the latter actually being so much so that it bolstered up for the success of the debut. Yet it was an uncomfortable time for America itself. The Vietnam conflict raged on. And the youth culture of the 60’s were growing into adults right between the shootings at Kent State and the Watergate scandal. For their part, Chicago were themselves weary of a 1970 spent of near non stop touring. This resulted in an album of a different kind that I wrote an Amazon.com review for in 2009.


Three years into their stellar career after the huge success of their first two albums Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago II  Chicago apparently decided that they didn’t want to be too commercial.So they decided after having three smash hit singles already they wanted to cut something they wanted to.Pretty typical story from the early 70’s right? Well maybe but there is always twists.In this case Chicago already had a commercial sound to begin with so,if an arty album is what there was going for there would still be memorable aspects.

Basically this is an album divided into suits:there are 3 of them where all the songs run together.At the same time,for the purpose of CD presentation they are separated out into 23 separate cuts. All of these song,regardless of how they are presented with a very “live in the studio” flavor;it’s almost as if Chicago just all got behind the microphone and played,with little extra stuff added. That being so it says a lot for this band’s talents because this is some of the most vital, energetic and creative music Chicago created during…well a period of heavy creativity for them.

Fact is only the first four songs stand alone. “Sing A Mean Tune Kid” has a perfect Sly Stone riff and is one of Chicago’s funkiest jams;it runs on awhile and ends up in a Terry Kath solo but it’s great regardless.The “suite” that Terry does on the album is one of the best here-he called it “An Hour In The Shower”.Terry was always represented the gruffer voiced, rockier aspect of Chicago’s sound and the five tunes he presents,in very ragged glory are consistent and hang very well together. Robert Lamm’s “travel suite” is more musically erratic but includes some excellent tunes.

There’s the jazzy funk jam “Free” is short but the closest thing this album had to a hit.”Mother” is another nice R&B rocker with some rich sonic power while the folksy charm of “Flight 602” and the light pop balladry of “Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home” are also okay but not fantastic.The final suite,called “elegy” is the most impressive;the album cover features the familiar Chicago logo sewn into a very faded and weather damaged American flag. And the spoken word poem “When All The Laughter Dies In Sorry”,as morbid as it is make it clear the early 70’s was filled with seemingly un-resolvable issues.

One tune that makes the same point even more clearly is “Progress?”,an instrumental starting with gentle horns which get “progressively” louder and more chaotic,to the point of playing along with the inner city sound of drills and car horns:it takes a very impressionistic and implicit “united funk” era message song flavor. On “The Approaching Storm” and “Man Vs Man:The End” we’re treated to two very intense horn based jams that are equally chaotic.

Upon a brief inspection this album follows the same basic conceptual formula as the first two Chicago recordings but at the same time the rough n’ funky sound of the production as well as the virtual lack of singles potential make this a definite AOR delight.The bands flutist Walter Parazaider said of in the liner notes to this album that Chicago never made “cookie cutter” music.Lucky for them Chicago were able to reach out to their audience with their journey of musical creativity rather then alienate them with a lot of self indulgent tricks.

That’s why it’s important to acknowledge the presence of funk in their music;funk,and jazz by degrees are music’s that are able to be ambitious AND reach out and touch the human heart and pulse in different ways. The fact that Chicago were able to integrate both genre’s so successfully into their sound is a testament to how they truly understood what they were doing.


Seeing that post 60’s America begin to unfold before Chicago, both in their travels and through audience observation perhaps, is a key element to understanding what Chicago III is as an album. Even as a writer, have to acknowledge that I didn’t understand how Chicago’s sound was changing so organically. This particular album was not Chicago’s most popular one. And its somber thematic content might’ve contributed to that situation. It still showcased a band, straight out of the 60’s musical ethic of expanding public musical taste-shaping songs that set out to get people thinking about their world.

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Givin’ It Back: Remembering The First Isley Brothers Album Showcasing The 3+3 Lineup

Marvin Isley, the youngest of the Isley brothers, may have passed away eight years ago. But the Cinninati born bassist graduated from the C.W Post College with a degree in music. By that time, he’d already co-wrote a major hit with the Isley’s in “Fight The Power”. Of course, the first time he and Chris Jasper actually played with Marvin’s elder brothers Kelly,Rudy and Ron came six years earlier. It was on a 1971 album where the Isley’s covered many pop and rock hits of the late 60’s and the then present day. It was called Givin’ It Back. And here’s a review of I wrote shortly before Marvin’s passing.


The late 60’s began the Isley’s funk period,circa 1968-1970 when their tune “It’s Your Thing” was enormous and every album seemed to leap them forward somehow musically. Than came this album. It’s 1971 at this point and the optimism of and defiance of the late 60’s had turned to more cautious,inward reflection. This effect musicians of all colors and back rounds and it had it’s effect on the Isley’s too. This album presents elongated cover versions of different pop tunes associated with that era,most of which had some cultural or political bent.

The sepia toned album covers features the three Isley’s with acoustic guitars and you do here those to a degree on this album but despite the way this was actually presented to me this is NOT an acoustic album by any stretch of the imagination. More accurately I would describe it as a mildly more psychedelic funk take on the folk/soul movement that was gaining some popularity at the time of artists such as Bill Withers.

The one thing you can guarantee from the Isley’s is that whatever they do you’ll find some of the most impassioned,soulful and intelligent interpretive vocalizing one is likely to ever hear and this album has it coming out the wazoo! The album starts off with a very Ike Hayes-like ten minute take on “Ohio” and Hendrix’s “Machine Gun”,both a good choice for a medley yes but the unique thing is it’s cinematic soul presented with some acoustic instrumentation so you get two flavors merging into one,yet again.

The most impressive thing about their versions of “Fire And Rain”,”Lay Lady Lay” and especially “Spill The Wine”,with that song’s originally rapped lyric element actually sung this time is how fully Ron Isley in particularly re-harmonizes the vocal arrangements and even if the music is on the same groove somewhat as the originals (melodically anyway) all of these songs sound heavily re invented as opposed to merely covered. The albums closes with the liked minded “Love The One Your With” and with that there’s a tone set not just for this particular album but the Isley’s future in general.

In the years to come after this they would continue refining different combinations of the flavors of this and the previous three albums prior to it to with their famous 3+3 format so even if this music literally reaches into it’s very recent past for song ideas it’s conceptualization also look forward to where the brothers were going musically.


At the time of writing this review, I actually had no idea that this particular album was both Marvin Isley and cousin Chris Jasper’s first time appearing with their elder brothers and brother Ernie,who’d started playing with the Isley’s just a year before. The Isley’s  would go through some amazing changes during the earlier part of the 70s-from a psychedelic tinged funk/soul sound to the folk/soul singer-songwriter stylings of Givin’ It Back. They were playing many styles of music that went with what’s called the funk process. And as a bass player, Marvin was a major part of this transition.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

After Dark image.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Kate Bush & 35 Years Of ‘The Dreaming’

Kate Bush’s 1982 album The Dreaming will be coming up to its 35th anniversary this coming September 13th. For years,I personally knew her only for her collaboration with Peter Gabriel. But none of her own music. It was from a YouTube anthology series Oddity Archive,hosted and created by my Facebook friend Ben Minnotte,did he process his love of the music of Kate Bush. So I sought out an album mentioned in one of his videos called Never For Ever. Interestingly enough, obtained The Dreaming for free in a CD grab bag I purchased earlier. Here is an Amazon.com review I wrote about it four years ago.


During a period where many of the record companies were desperately pleading with musical artists not to release any non commercial material? The age old plea from the artists themselves came into play: how to be creative and commercial at the same time. That wasn’t really a concern for Kate Bush.

Her first three albums tended to be singer-songwriter oriented as their core was focused on the material. With each release however her arrangements become far broader and more dynamic. So for her fourth album in 1982? She just flew with her own creative heart. “Sat On Your Lap”,”Pull The Pin”,”Leave It Open” and the title song, interestingly enough a single,are all built around percussively gated drumming and a number of digitally derived,synthesized effects creating vast seas of different tonal melodies.

Often times Aboriginal Australian and African rhythms come into play on the refrains of these songs as well. “There Goes A Tenner” and “Suspended In A Gaffe” are far closer to the piano based musical hall oriented uptempo 60’s type Brit-pop sound similar to her earlier music. “Night Of The Swallow”,”All Of Love” and “Houdini” all start out slower,piano based ballads before building into more stripped down rhythm intensity. “Get Out Of My House” is full of emotional fire-with an extremely percussive set of poly-rhythms.

It would seem that when this album first came out? It wasn’t exactly very well received. On the other hand later Bjork,an artist who is very clearly influenced by Kate Bush’s musical approach from even my under-trained ears,cited this as a favorite of her albums for her. Of course OutKast’s Big Boi also cited this album as a favorite. And listening to this album its easy to see how that interest is far from merely generational.

With today’s emphasis on pan ethnic rhythm oriented trip/trance-hop and different cinematic electronica/hip-hop hybrids? All of a sudden music such as what Kate Bush did,and wasn’t fully understood for in it’s time,suddenly made a lot of sense. Yet another example of how artists are often a bit creatively ahead of the listener.

So perhaps the pop/rock audience of the early 80’s weren’t sure what to make of these rhythmically and harmonically complex songs that populate the majority of this album. But another generation of musicians,as somewhat disconnected from the side of musical culture to which Kate Bush might’ve come from,heard something in what she did here that they could swing their own way. And in the end,that only makes this album all the more wonderful in terms of standing on its own merits.


With The Dreaming, Kate Bush brought in the then very new Fairlight CMI synthesizer computer to help her with this self produced album. One that took her original musical approach into the expansive world of world fusion. As well as accompanying musical tribalism. With one of its songs “Sat In Your Lap” originally inspired by Bush having attending a Stevie Wonder concert, The Dreaming stands as an example of an album that was (to some degree) an unexplored direction for early electronic sampling on a rhythmic level in what could be described as an early 80’s proto alternative album.

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