Tag Archives: classic albums

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

Go For Your Guns

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Rio’@35: Duran Duran Do It There Own Way With A New Wave Religion

Rio

Duran Duran are perhaps my favorite of the new wave/synth pop bands of the 1980’s. Although my first experience hearing them new was via the song “Notorious”,their 1982 album Rio was unavoidable throughout the 80’s. Especially having access to any show that aired music videos. And that leads as to why Duran Duran were such an important band in the 1980’s. For one,though Australian,they were part of a second “British Invasion” during the new wave era. For another,they were able to mix style and substance in a time where music began to require strong visual appeal.

Henrique and I both share a love of Duran Duran and the Rio album. One part of this relates to the visual nature of it all-in particular the art deco style album cover as painted by Malcolm Garrett. The major part of the of it for us is how this album relates to the musical changes of the early 80’s. There may have been an anti disco radio freeze out in the states. But the bands bassist John Taylor discussed that his main inspiration during the time Rio was recorded was Chic’s Bernard Edwards. So as such,the entire musical sound of the album is a direct decedent of the funkiest end of American disco.

The grooves on all the songs on this album are equally as strong and vital as its melodies and vocals. The major hit songs such as “Hungry Like The Wolf” and the opening title song defined their sound using call and response reverbed rock guitars and arpeggiated Jupiter 8 synthesizer, the latter a then very new instrument. It helped create the pop sound of that era on that level. Several years ago,I did a review of the album on Amazon.com that went a bit further into Rio‘s relation to disco and funk. So would like re-post it here as part of this overview.


1982 was a very interesting year for pop music development in that decade as well as it was for Duran Duran. Their self titled debut album was already out and that was just mildly tentative looking back. And one of the reasons that first album seems that way is because of this. Many times a bands second release is a huge step up for them but,as if their first album wasn’t that strong (it was very good in many ways) this album was so potent it almost seemed like the work of another band entirely. One of the main differences here is that the bands rhythmic priorities had completely changed.

Whereas the album tracks on the first album favored an ambient electronica flavor this album went right for heavy funk polyrhythms,percussion effects and some of the most harmonically complex synthesizer riffs courtesy of Nick Rhodes. This is not only their breakthrough album but was great for the band as a whole because on every song on this album you get to see how incredible these guys are as musicians. John Taylor is one of the funkiest bass players in the new romantic movement after Mark King and every single one of these songs are percolating with his emotionally charged and varied bass lines

That goes from high to fret-less tone,onto slapping and walking lines: they guy puts it all into the music and it clicks appropriately with whatever song it’s accompanying. The first four songs on the album,including the mega hit title track and of course “Hungry Like The Wolf” are an example of the heavily Chic/ABC style funkiness this band appropriated for it’s own uniquely flavored sound not to mention the potency of “My Own Way” and “Lonely In Your Nightmare” where John’s bass lines get free reign to leap up and down where they want.

Personally these guys may have been young and full of it but lyrically (as well as musically) they certainly had a smart minded wit and imagination that would make Nile Rodgers proud. On “Hold Back The Rain” and “Last Chance On The Stairway” there is something of a poppy variation of the rock/funk sound,even if lighter on the jazz influence of Stanley Clarke’s School Days era that Level 42 dealt with too and Duran Duran put their complex pop style melodies with these songs. Every song here is brimming with melodic and harmony ideas you wouldn’t believe and that’s probably why it’s so popular.

It’s an excellent example of intelligently thought out and funky 80’s pop and yes: intelligence and funk usually HAVE to go together to make it all work out in that genre of music. The hit “Save A Prayer” is a pop song that does have a mildly more pronounced jazz influence with these unusually chorded synthesizers and harmonics as the same goes for “New Religion” and the pocket symphony of the closing “The Chauffeur”. Unfairly dismissed as being too easy an 80’s pop throwback for years this album has continually reasserted it’s strong musical values,as well as it’s sense of flair and invention that goes into the very best of pop music of any sub genre in any era.


Three and a half decades after the fact,Rio began a precedence for how pop music would present itself to present day. Decades of “replicative fading” with pop music hopefuls attempting to recreate this mixture of synth based funky rock mixed with fantastical musical videos,which is now the mainstream,has thankfully not take anything away from what made this album so strong.  The album was so much the opposite of a sophomore slump that the bands self titled 1981 debut,at first unsuccessful in the US, was reissued after Rio’s success and succeeded off the heels of it.

With its post punk and disco/funk influences still being so close in time period to it, Rio managed to pull together everything the late 70’s indicated 80’s music would go. And where it would continue to go after it. Because the most creatively successful music of the 2010’s has been the synth/new wave based nu-funk/boogie/disco spectrum, Rio also showcases how an album that can totally influence two ends of a future generation in very different ways. And that may continue to be Rio‘s most enduring legacy as an album.

 

 

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James Brown’s ‘Get On The Good Foot’-An Extended Album Overview For The Godfather’s 84th Anniversary

James Brown was one of few artist who,upon first hearing the box set Star Time,made a thoroughly positive musical impression on me. Only one song didn’t then nor fully does now make a huge impact on me. And of all songs it was “Get On The Good Foot”. Its one of many 70’s funk classics of course. Just when set up with so many of his classic extended funk pieces such as “There It Is”,”Hot Pants”,”Soul Power”,”The Payback” and “Funky Drummer”? Something about the groove didn’t have the same vitality to me somehow. And that opinion seems strange to any friend or family member I tell it to.

This song is also the title song of James Brown’s second 1972 album. Its one which I saw for years on CD. Mostly at the old Borders Books & Music. Yet my lack of interested in the title song had me avoiding it. That continued onto the period when I began exploring original JB albums-always favoring The Payback or any of the Apollo live albums over Get On The Good Foot. It became somewhat rare on CD and vinyl in my area during this time. When I started to here more about what the rest of the album had on it,was luckily able to snag an inexpensive used CD of it and take the whole thing in.

James Brown seems to have presented even his studio records in much the same manner he did his life shows. You would have re-workings of classics from his catalog. And he’d take the grooves and songs he was currently working-and put them into that mix. That had the effect of making JB’s studio offerings in his salad days rather more intimate affairs than most. I personally was first exposed to the title song of this album plus “I Got A Bag Of My Own” via JB’s box set ‘Star Time’. After taking many years to track this,Brown’s first double studio album,down on CD, it became clear just how important this enormous musical statement was to The Godfather at the height of his funky innovations.

The title track of this album is one of his known classics. For unknown reasons,this particular groove is the only JB funk jam that never totally moved me. Surprising considering how bass/guitar/horn driven it is. On “The Whole World Needs Liberation” a Latin soul jazz styled groove-filled with percussion,electric piano,heavy bass and strings illustrates a vocal call for freedom. “Your Love Was Good For Me” is a beautifully orchestrated Chicago type sweet soul number. “Cold Sweat is done up as a faster,slightly more modern take six years after the original. There’s also a recitation over a cinematic soul backdrop from Hank Ballard about JB’s musical cultural importance.

“I’ve Got A Bag Of My Own” is one of JB’s most fiery funk jams-with its percussion rhythm and deep bass/guitar chord. The almost rocking intensity of “Funky Side Of Town” keeps a similar groove percolating along with “My Part/Make It Funky”. “Nothing Beats a Try But A Fail” is a 6/8 time bluesy soul ballad of determination whereas the album ends on a similar note with “I Know Its True”. “Please Please”,a retake of JB’s first hit from 1956 is a 12+ minutes musical treatise on everything from brotherly love to his bands origins in the American South. There’s also a retake of the earlier R&B shuffle of “Ain’t That A Groove”,there’s the slow jazzy blues instrumental horn shuffle of “Dirty Harri”.

Since I first began listening to James Brown intensively just over two decades ago,have been gradually exploring his original albums. Especially the ones from the early/mid 70’s. It would seem from listen to this album that 1972 was an extremely strong year along for him musically. With the classic JB lineup in full affect here,this album is assembled as something of an in studio concert. With no breaks between the songs. Some songs are cinematic soul in par with the early 70’s blackspoitation era,some are tone ballads and others are just seriously funky. Its got all sides of classic James Brown of the early 70’s-perfectly capable as keeping it just as live in the studio as he would on stage.

Its kind of a funny afterthought that my friend Henrique and I both grew up during a time when James Brown’s 70’s studio albums were all back in print on CD along with his numerous compilations. As for my case,ended up passing them by for purely monetary reasons. Even though many of them were out of print by the time I could’ve afforded them,have always endeavored to hunt them down. And each time I do,there’s something to learn about the way James Brown presented his recorded music. In every way what the Star Time box set did for me when I first heard it.

Get On The Good Foot actually has the total opposite effect for me that the song first had. And even has me appreciating more hearing it in its native context. This is an album that actually pushes the JB funk sound-based on repeating phrases “on the one” and lushly orchestrated mid tempo/ballad melodies into an album length concept. And in doing so, Get On The Good Foot was a dry run for JB’s next double album opus in late 1973’s The Payback. In the end, this is an album that might’ve been the one that really put it all together for James Brown in terms of the best way to present his studio albums.

*Here’s a link to the Amazon.com review I did of this album that this article is based on. Please click on the review and click the yes or no button there if it helped you or if you liked it. You’ll be glad that you did. And it might even be good to you!

 

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‘Free As The Wind’ At 40: Joe,Wilton,Stix And Larry Feeling The Funky,Funky Love

Free As The Wind, released at some point in early 1977, is one particular album by The Crusaders that is kind of special to me. Over the years,its come to my understanding how important jazz-funk was to the funk genre as a whole. Most classic “united funk” derived from a strong jazz influence anyway. In terms of a sax and bass/guitar oriented variety of jazzy funk,mid to late 70’s Crusaders were simply hard to beat. Especially the way Joe Sample colored them with his piano and Fender Rhodes based compositions. And Free As The Wind exemplifies this so much.

Its an album that’s been part of my whole life from very early on. From it being part of the vinyl library at WLBZ TV where my father worked (along with other fusion records used as back round music in promos in the early 80’s) to seeing it in every used record store I visited as a teenager. Its been a huge key point in Henrique and my discussions on The Crusaders. Especially when he purchased a Crusaders wind chime of ebay which was used to promote Free As The Wind. Here’s an Amazon.com review I did 12 years ago about my initial enthusiasm upon first picking it up on CD.


The Crusaders are a band you just can’t go wrong with during this era and this album is no different.The funky beat just doesn’t give out on this record until just about the end.The jazzy ‘It Happens Everyday” is a gentler showcase for Joe Sample’s piano and it is the smoothest thing you’ll hear on this album.’Free As The Wind’ is dominated by the hefty jazz funk that these guys do so well-for a genre not noted for great collective musicianship (by some CRITICS anyway) The Crusaders always have that under wraps.

But spaces for solo’s such as on the speedy “Sweet ‘N Sour” gives Larry Carlton a chance to shine and solo while the highly memorable “Night Crawler” gives Wilton Felder the same chance.”Feel It” is my favorite on the record-like everything here it grooves and grooves HARD but it has an unusually hard funkiness that I appreciate.The title cut is the most arranged tune here but still-nothing to scoff at.

Even by the most obviously hard core of snobbish jazz critics and journalists,most of whom are quick to condemn jazz musicians for making funky music give ‘Free As Wind’ a five star review,same as most of The Crusaders catalog.That may be because,as stated earlier The Crusaders were one of a unique group of jazz-funk artists (aside from The Blackbyrds perhaps) who kept a sense of collective soul-jazz improvisation and superb musical chemistry while also playing highly electric funk.And no critic I have heard of could possibly scoff at that and these guy’s memorable compositions!I can’t,can you?


When writing this review,it seemed important to challenge the perception of the jazz funk/fusion genre as being based totally on selling records. Free As The Wind is very important to jazz funk because not only does it it keep the Crusader’s brilliance at soloing intact. EWF alumni Roland Bautista even guested on two of the albums most particularly powerful tunes in “Feel It” and “River Rat”.  In terms of its string arrangements, Joe Sample did a superb job of supplementing the grooves songs melodically by giving the songs exactly what they need for string and horn orchestration.

But it also showcases some of the most consistently strong grooves they ever put onto an album. And it is very much an album experience-without any dull moments that would take away from the strong melodies and grooves of Joe Sample,Wilton Felder and Stix Hooper. Many individual songs stand out too-such as Larry Carlton’s amazing “Night Crawler”. That song was so strong that Carlton elected to record his own version of it for his self titled solo album released the following year. At the end of the day, Free As The Wind really helped to give late 70’s jazz funk one of its strongest voices.

 

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

 

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‘Sign O The Times’ At 30: Prince Bares The Cross Of His Time To Settle Down

Sign O The Times

Sign O The Times is the tale of three different Prince album projects. Because Prince was cutting edge in terms of the presentation of music as well as the sound of it,he recorded enough music during 1986 for three albums. Two of which were multi album sets. Those were The Dream Factory,Crystal Ball and an album credited to a pseudonym Camille. Due to Warner Bros. displeasure with so much Prince music coming out during a years time,all of this content was whittled down into a double album set. And it was all finally released thirty years ago today as Sign O The Times.

My own personal history with the album came with seeing a very choppy take of the music video for I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”,one of the albums rockier hits,on a VHS tape of music videos my father recorded for me at work from MTV. That was early in 1988. I first heard the hits for the album years later on the collection The Hits/The B-Sides. It was shortly after the albums tenth anniversary that I first picked it up on CD. I’d only read about it through Allmusic Guide before. And unlike with many written reviews,after hearing Sign O The Times so often I still totally agree with the guide’s positive assessment of the album.

Sign On The Times is generally considered to be either his best or most significant album of the 80’s. The obvious reason for this album being considered is best is probably because,even with Prince’s trademark eclecticism,all of the musical ideas and combinations on this album work perfectly for what they are. Its detractors sometimes point out how disjointed the album is. To the point of being highly uneven. In a way, that’s also why this album is so important. As my friend Henrique pointed out to me, its perhaps Prince’s best early use of his vault material. None of this music was meant to heard together,but it sounded as if it were.

Any album that managed to put such disparate music, all intended for different projects,into a context that had some semblance of conceptual unity is the sign of a highly creative mindset. In many ways,the internal maturity Prince seems to showcase throughout this album comes out in his approach to its presentation. Its not him so much trying to fuse different genres into a whole anymore. But rather showcasing his ability at playing funk,soul,dance and rock ‘n roll with equal vitality and identity. Writing my review on Amazon.com of this album was a bit daunting. But it did manage to convey more specifically what the album was musically.


I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t already been said about what is very justly regarded as a classic album. Well maybe the best thing to do is discuss a little about why it might be so revered. In the three years or so since his commercial breakthrough with Purple Rain,Prince had been carefully balance creativity with his need to communicate with his audience. It was a restless struggle that’s basically defined his career and,to an extent his personal character up to this point. Somehow here he managed to make it all work.

Basically this is a double album pieced together from from three aborted 1986 album sessions and reworked into what ended up being one of his 80’s classics. As with any Prince album the sound is eclectic yet somehow consistent. On this album though the range of subject matter lyrically is much broader in scope and in a lot of ways more mature. During this time Prince was also interjecting strong live band and solo elements of jazz into his sound. It’s not only in the instrumentation but in the arrangements too and,not only that his production elements-especially his noted,inventive use of the LINN LM-1 drum machine is on full display here.

The title song here is a completely stripped down,pulsing musing on outwardly focused social ills of the day and very surprisingly became a big hit as well. There are also a good deal of genuinely sunny weather sounding pop/rock tunes such as the bouncy “Play In The Sunshine”. At the same time these songs,being that it’s Prince are not mere “fun” tunes and give you the full spectrum of weather as each song concludes with these minor chorded jazz-funk/blues instrumental bridges that express the human race’s duel consciousness very well.

There’s also a couple of dense,moody funky rockers in the explosive “It”,the tough grooving,hip-hop beat inflected “Hot Thing” and the stomping “Strange Relationship”. This album also offers up enormous doses of funk. Both the classic “Housequake” and “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”,with their precise horn charts and chunky rhythm guitars not only showcase the obvious James Brown influence but give a possible wink to out JB might’ve sounded had his career not been stalled after the mid 70’s and had he just continued on innovating.

So Prince is actually kind of picking up here where one of his musical heroes left off. There are also a series of songs here that just pull everything he does best together. One is the slinky,electronically polyrhythmic jazz-funk of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”-one of my favorite Prince songs and one containing an intentionally misleading come on in the lyric. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” has a similar musical idea married to a lyric that plays on the idea about how opposite sexes may not relate to each other as well as they think.

“Forever In My Life” is a very poignant bluesy funk number that is about Prince maturing when it comes to matters of love. “U Got The Look” is one song here that does sound a little bit like his 1984 era material well,by degrees anyway although Sheila E’s percussion effects and the slicker production make it very distinctly it’s own beast. On an early nod toward what would later become known as praise rock “The Cross” has a very anthemic guitar god styled flavor and is one of Prince most rock oriented songs ever.

On the horn packed soul ballads “Slow Love” and “Adore” Prince is at his most sweet and romantic since the lyrics on his debut album For You. So across the sixteen songs on this album you get a Prince musically and personally in transition,augmenting his musical sound into yet another new territory while still keeping a foot in his original style. Also the lyrics illustrate Prince’s psyche in a similar place and in a way this stands as something of a peak of the stylistic progression he’d been working on since the 80’s decade got started.


Sign O The Times stands as a significant example,be it by accident or partial design, of Prince’s understanding of what his classic soul and funk progenitors had done. Artists such as Ray Charles were expert at playing many different kinds of music-from the soul style he innovated ,jazz and country music. And Prince was able to bring his own artistic personality to multiple styles here as well. It also showcased him in a new musical period too. It was one where he was no longer an on the loose partier. His outlook on nuclear war and other social issues here is not that of resignation anymore. Its one of concern for the future and a better life.

It was author Jason Draper who, in his coffee table book Prince: Life & Times in 2008, described the overall atmosphere of the album best. To paraphrase his words,the album jacket features an out of focus Prince in the foreground. He is walking away from what appears to be the set of a local production of Guys & Dolls. There is a glowing plasma ball in the center of it all. Draper speculated,and perhaps correctly so,that it was not only representative of Prince focusing more on music and less on the rock lifestyle. But also on Warner Bros passing on his planned releases as well.

Prince also delivered an album here that seemed to have provided a better viewpoint for music writers. My father described one such instance where Downbeat magazine (which is generally highly critical of even jazz releases) gave Sign O The Times a 5 star review-essentially describing it as Prince’s magnum opus. This was either in the late 80’s or early 90’s.  Now I can only relate my fathers story about this since I cannot find any confirmation in online archives for it. But it does speaks volumes about how the musical and personal maturation dealt with on the album has had positive results on even professional music journalism.

On its 30th anniversary,this album is also a shinning example to artists and producers who,today, inspired by Prince’s instrumental condensation of funky dance grooves. The Minneapolis sound has become the mainstream production approach now. But what is important for modern producers inspired by Prince is to take a listen to how even on these songs,most done by Prince himself,are possessed of strong chord changes and thick grooves. In fact, Sign O The Times should be experienced fully by any DIY producer/musician today before their next production because it remains that strong an album for that ethic.

My Favorite Songs From The Album For You To Hear:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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‘Ask Rufus’ At 40: Lifting You Up With An Everlasting Love

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Ask Rufus was actually the original name of the band-named from an article in Popular Mechanics. It was a long road from their original lead singer Paulette McWilliams to her young friend Chaka Khan taking over. On January 19th,1977 that original name for Rufus was used for the title of their fifth studio album. Personally,I wasn’t sure if I much enjoyed it after first picking the vinyl up at a Boston record store in 2001. Perhaps the terrible quality of the record played into it. Especially upon hearing it on CD some years later,the album revealed itself as perhaps the bands strongest album from a musical standpoint.

Ask Rufus doesn’t exactly sound like the four that came before it. Some of that was intentional. As Chaka Khan once said,it was her an her husband’s Richard’s attempt to “do away with the leathers,feathers and wild child act”. She wanted to focus on the band and her vocal ability. Its also the type of album that can engender many personal memories for people. Its actually an album that inspired me to begin writing my own song lyrics with jazz/funk music in mind. In his book  Mo Meta Blues, Questlove gave his own personal story about it,and I quote:

My parents were going to do an extended trip. When they told me how long they’d be away, the string breakdown of “Egyptian Song” came on. And then the story got sadder. In Louisiana, my aunt Karen met a man, and they decided to get married. She took the record with her.”

There are many things I could say about Ask Rufus after having over 16 years experience with the album. One major recent revelation was my boyfriend Scott listening to the album with me for the first time and mentioning the first side’s closer “Everlasting Love” resembling George Michael’s “Careless Whisper”. Usually a more vocally focused music listener,I deeply appreciate Scott’s musical observation on that. Of course eight years ago on Amazon.com,I managed to get a hold on the musical vibe of the album on my review there-which of course I will now re-share with you.


Rufus And Chaka Khan,aside from CK’s amazing and influential singing have always been just mildly underrated as musicians. In the years after the debut,especially with the style of the previous Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan their style had been growing from that of a conventional 70’s funk band to what they became with this album.By far this would have to be described as Rufus’s artistic pinnacle and is today justly revered. It is here that Rufus made the transformation to being a fully sophisticated band with brilliant songwriting,fully mature and reflective lyrics and plenty of jazz influences.

With a couple minor exceptions this album showcases Rufus sticking with a mid tempo jazzy soul/funk sound and a great deal of sultry. Not only is it solid proof that funk doesn’t have to be a non-stop rhythm barrage to groove like mad but it features songs that all sound like mini classics.”At Midnight” is the main uptempo song here.The production is far from slick and features probably the best use of synthesizer on a mid period Rufus Recording-the simple beat sounds deceptively like disco but on the breakdown it’s perfectly clear that it isn’t.

Lyrically it’s clear that Chaka,who participates very strongly as a writer here is content on reflecting on how her own complicated marriage and personal life at the at time is effecting her feelings on her own womanhood-strong emphasizing emotional involvement.”Close The Door” is one mournful example;Chaka’s tortured voice and the spare backdrop just drips with melancholy of the soul.

The superb orchestration of Claire Fischer (cousin of the bands drummer Andre Fischer) not only makes that tune so wonderful but dominates the equally mournful instrumental “A Slow Screw Against The Wall”;the briefly funk blowout of “A Flat Fry”,featuring Ron Wood is pretty much the last tune of that type you’ll find here.The memorable and singable “Earth Song” features a cryptic lyric that,if understood sums up Chaka’s lyrical involvement here as she sings,”Stars/what a mystical woman you’ve made me” and on “Everlasting Love” we’re introduced into a deceptively musically simple vision of romance and sensuality.

“Hollywood” is…well almost an uptempo song because it’s so sprightly even as it looks at the effect fame and surroundings of luxury effect people.”Magic In Your Eyes” is yet another excellent romantic moment whereas “Better Days”,co-written by Chaka’s then husband Richard Holland reflects on a possible optimistic future for the then faltering couple.As for the music,let’s just say I think Dido was highly influenced by this song when she did her hit song Thank You ovet two decades later. The title of “Egyptian Song” sounds like the song and lyrics will be very complicated and they are.

 

From the melody down to it’s lyrics it reflects on Chaka’s journey to discover her racial identity that was evidently at that point still very much a part of her life. Here you here a very different kind of Rufus,challenging themselves all around to be a band to contend with a very different kind of groove for a very different kind of funk. There is little likelihood you’ll ever come across an album in Rufus catalog or anyone else’s that sounds quite like this.And that really says an awful lot for this.


Today,I have Ask Rufus on both CD and a far superior vinyl copy that included the original poster. Whether or streaming this album or hearing it via any physical media, no changes in technology will take away what Rufus accomplished on this album.  As I recently learned, it was the first and only platinum album. Perhaps their change in approach to a jazzier,more mature groove had something to do with that. Andre Fischer would be ejected from the group after this album. And it ended up being a dry run for both the bands future career as session aces and Chaka’s solo career that was right around the corner for her.

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Teddy Pendergrass’s Self Titled Debut Album Is About To Turn 40: A Blue Note Goes Solo

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Teddy Pendergrass’s debut album will be 40 years old this coming June 12th. It was a huge part of the Philly soul renaissance that peaked during the late 70.s 1977 alone was also one of the red letter years,along with 1977,where funky and soulful album masterpieces seemed to dominate the music world in general. Since this coming Sunday would’ve Teddy’s 67th birthday,it seemed fitting to give his classic debut album upon leaving Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes an overview. And luckily I already wrote one via Amazon.com,shortly after his passing in early 2010,that can be presented here.


Well here I go copping out lol. Teddy Pendergrass has just passed and here I am reviewing him for the first time. Interesting how when someone isn’t with us anymore that sometimes our thoughts about their artistry really come to the surface. In this case it’s a good thing because this is Teddy’s debut solo album and it was and still is a joyous occasion all around. This is one of those albums that,among it’s eight tracks you’ll be hard pressed to find a dud in the bunch.

Between the writing,production and lyrics of Gamble & Huff and the unmistakable sound of MFSB there is a level of consistency and musical potency here that so many people making their solo debut outside a group setting can hope to achieve. It wasn’t as if Teddy hadn’t already achieved a brilliant level of quality with the Blue Notes but at the same time he only outdid himself here. With the varying rhythms,tasty orchestration weaving in and out of the songs and Teddy’s elastic shouts and gruff coos not only made him a huge star with this release but made huge creative strides as well.

The tempo is raised on “You Can’t Hide From Yourself” and again,there’s a message in the music: let what that message is be a surprise when you hear it. Not only that but the percussive groove and the instrumental rhythms within them cross the boundaries between soul,funk,Latin,pop and disco music with such an ease you may in fact forget that the very nature of the Philly Sound embraces all of those flavors into it’s own sound with the musicality of those involved running on all thrusters.

“Be Sure”,the hit “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “The More I Get,The More I Want” are all equally shimmering jams all emphasizing the same type of idea and all with the same catchy and well arranged tunes as well. As with many albums of this era the the mid tempo tunes really give singer and musicians the opportunity to stretch out in different ways. The soulful “Somebody Told Me” and the Latin inflected groove of “Easy,Easy,Got To Take It Easy” both allow the heavy,easy and mid range of Teddy’s vocal instrument to announce the versatility he was capable of.

“And If I Had” and “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” of course give you two of those great Teddy ballads,building on the same foundation as the uptempo tunes he does here. On this album Teddy sings about the ins and outs of romance,the twists and turns of the sexual revolution and the social concerns of people at the time-all embodying the strengths of the Philly Sound and few solo performers pulled it off quite the way Teddy did. In the end you have as astonishing a debut as anyone could possibly ask for.


Teddy Pendergrass: 1950-2010

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