Tag Archives: classic albums

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

After Dark image.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Look To The Rainbow At 40: Al Jarreau Remembered For This Milestone Live Album Of 70’s The Jazz-Fusion Era

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Al Jarreau’s passing on February 12th of this past year has really brought to mind the many conceptions and misconceptions of his artistry from within my own personal lifetime. There really was no reasonable way to ignore the mans unique and astounding vocal artistry. But the songs he wrote and interpreted were just as musically busy and complex as his singing was. When exploring him in an album context, his 1977 live recording Look To The Rainbow was name dropped as superb example of his performance ability. Here’s an Amazon.com review I did of it six years ago.


Speaking for myself this may very well be destined to be one of the premier live jazz fusion albums of it’s era. One of the qualities that makes it so significant is the lack of the direct visual element. True Al Jarreau is,for better or worse depending on your tastes one of the most theatrical performers in jazz this side of Jon Hendricks,his most obvious influence and of course the incomparable Cab Calloway. Al put’s his entire body into the performance like a contortionist. You can see some of that in the photographs of this album.

After the release of his first two albums,1975’s We Got By and the following year’s Glow,he found that both these albums had become enormous critical successes stateside but (stereotypically) wound up enormous COMMERCIAL successes across Europe. Even winning German Grammy’s. It would take some retooling of his approach before he’d get the same treatment in his home country. But Al’s vocal and songwriting talents made such a massive wave during the following European tour that he made this album based on his performances there. The results capture more than great music. But an artist in an important place and time as well.

Recorded with a small group fusion quartet of keyboardist Tom Canning,drummer Joe Correro,bass player Abraham Laboriel and vibraphone player Lynn Blessing this album doesn’t have an enormous instrumental sound.The idea is to focus on Al’s well renowned pipes. Even Al himself said at some times the vocalist side of him got in the way of the singer. Although strongly emphasizing his own excellent compositions the interpretive element of his talent gets the perfect showcase here.

Of course there’s the live rendition of Leon Russell’s “Rainbow In Your Eyes” which here is given the extra vocalese treatment from Jarreau. On “Better Than Anything” and the title song you get much the same quality. His take on the Paul Desmond/Dave Brubeck standard “Take Five” however is the heart and soul of this album to me,with Al improvising along with the songs already unexpected time changes and charging by songs end into this…well display of sheer vocal improvisation you’d just have to hear to believe. I

t’s intelligent and exciting and the audience can’t help but applaud midway through. I know I’d have been. On “Burst In With The Dawn” and “One Good Turn” he turns up the soulful/gospel flavor in his sound. And is equally at his sophistifunk best with “You Don’t See Me” and the “new” number “Loving You”,concluding everything with a show stopping rendition of the title song of his debut album.

One of the things that makes this such a special album is that is showcases everything that was positive and musically enriching about what Al Jarreau had to offer in the beginning of his professional recording career. You get the vocalese drama and distinctive timbre that’s got him attention then and ever since. You get a good sampling of the best of his songwriting he’d done thus far. You also get his abilities as an interpretive vocalist-from the worlds of pop,jazz and funk.

It’s once been said of the great American composer Duke Ellington that he often seemed to create kind of an all encompassing music that borrowed from many sources but maintain his distinctive sound,in his case referred to as “Ellingtonia”. I tend to think of Al Jarreau that way too. He integrates many of the influences that are meaningful to him into a one sound that you somehow know is very much his own.

And his producers and musicians working close to him are also able to find ways to bring this quality out on record in many different ways. This particular album shows that unique flavor translated just as easily from the album,onto the stage and in this case back onto an album again. Just goes to show how Al Jarreau,especially early in his career could work on so many levels.


Look To The Rainbow represents Al Jarreau as a shining example that the artistry of Jon Hendrix,Johnny Mathis,Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck were not truly lost when jazz went electric,as was the commonly held wisdom for some time. Much as with George Benson, the perception that Al Jarreau made his sound more commercial is misinterpreted. Jarreau began his major label recording career as a funk/soul/pop artist who had a jazzy vocal and writing approach. And took on jazz standards with the same vigor. This album brought out that quality in a significant way.

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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In Full Bloom Approaches 40: Rose Royce Do Their Dance On This Sophomore Success

 

Rose Royce had a massive hit right out of the box with their 1976 soundtrack to the motion picture Car Wash. In fact, it marked the beginning of funk functioning for the disco scene. And Rose Royce retained their crown for the rest of the 70’s as part of the funkiest royalty of the disco era funk bands. Between Norman Whitfield’s productions on them and the very strong caliber of the band themselves, it all made it possible for their second album, 1977’s In Full Bloom to retain the hit status of its predecessor. Here’s an Amazon.com review I did about the album seven years ago.


Rose Royce made it clear on this album that not only was their life after Car Wash for them and producer Norman Whitfield but that they fully intended to forge ahead with their sound. By the time the 70’s was at it’s midpoint synthesizers and electronics had become an enormous part of funk music,especially in the hands of people such as Stevie Wonder and Billy Preston.

While that had come into play to a certain degree on previously,the fact that Rose Royce were one of the few bands ever to debut on a soundtrack recording meant that they were going to save certain types of experimentation for their next album,if any. Turns out they were so big from the start a sophomore set was almost guaranteed. So it was basically on this album that Rose Royce…well basically became Rose Royce as it were.

While very even keel in terms of fast and slow songs,this album is primarily devoted to funk. It showcased that this was what they intended to base their sound in. But right away the bands unique sense of reinventing their influences within their groove became apparent when they unconventionally opened this album with the ballad “Wishing On A Star”. It’s one of the finest crafted slow numbers they ever did and deservedly one of their classic songs. “Ooh Boy” and “You’re My World,Girl” are the two other ballads here.

And the most soulful of them too,very much in the spirit of Chicago and Philly styles of 70’s soul balladry. On the funk numbers,needless to say it really comes to a head. On “Do Your Dance” and “It Makes You Feel Like Dancin” represent Rose Royce’s signature funk sounds where every part of the band became a purely rhythmic element-chugging like a freight train with the percussion,synthesizers,bass,guitar and cosmic vocal harmonies. It’s very much a futurist concept to how modern hip-hop producers such as Timbaland and The Neptunes approach their style of funk as well.

“You Can’t Please Everybody”,”Love,More Love” and “Funk Factory” are potent reminders of their more straight ahead,horn based danced funk sound they already showcased on their debut. Weather on cosmic electronic/space harmony based funk to chunky,hardcore brassy grooves and ballads this outfit proved to be one that had it all,could do it all and did it all when it came down to it. Gwen Dickey proved the master of funky femininity,wrapping her very girlish but very confident voice.

Even though she would come to represent some interpersonal issues within the band in the coming years,at this point she was very much part of the “funk factory” the band were starting to become. One wonders,if things had been different if Whitefield records could have had Rose Royce be part of a movement that would do for funk what Motown had done for R&B. They were very innovative and experimental in their genre of music. But also were very commercially viable. In many ways that style seemed to end with them rather than begin with it as Ricky Vincent’s “united funk” era was coming to an end with albums such as this. But still,the deed was done.


In Full Bloom represented something very important for the all important 1976-77 period of disco era funk. Just as much as it represented that potential unexplored direction at Motown (through Norman Whitfield while he was still there) as well. One element is the bands combination of thick slap bass lines combined with heavily rounded Moog bass. That gave the grooves an enormous and up front bottom to work with-along with the wah wah guitars,strings and the sweet voice of Gwen Dickey. As such, it might very well be one of the most important disco era funk albums of its day.

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