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Funk Revelations Of 1987: ‘Hold On To Love’ by Third World

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By this time Third World had been around ten years and,since they started off their career with a cover of a Gamble & Huff song, it made sense that Kenny and Leon would wind up the producer/writers of half of this album. Even with the band producing their own half this album doesn’t have the same high energy electro funk flavors of the excellent previous album Sense of Purpose and instead this is music that relies more on atmosphere and texture than on rhythms and grooves. “The Spirit Live”,”Hold Onto Love” and “Simplicity” all have elaborate arrangements than even typical pop-reggae.
There’s also Christian/gospel messages underlying these tunes which actually work in an interesting way with the bands Rastafarian back round surprisingly. As for the other two Gamble & Huff tracks here there’s the hardcore funk/reggae jam in “Corruption” which conjures up images of a Jamaican version of the O’Jays making music in the mid 80’s. “Manners” is a great uptempo Philly jam as only Gamble & Huff could deliver it that show that,no matter what your beliefs are treating other people right is always the way to go and it was a great plea for humanism in the “me” generation.
Of the songs Third World provided themselves, they bring the Minneapolis connection  back into their sound (in the most lean possible way) on “We Could Be Jammin’ Reggae”. This groove is also home to some amazing jazzy Latin chords too. “Get Outta Town” and “Reggae Radio Station” are the more reggae oriented of the songs here. And again showcase subtlety over showmanship. From the sound and lyric of “Pyramid” there’s no doubt that it comes from a similar musical environment as Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl” from his album Bad which by sheer coincidence was released the same year.
The album ends again on a somewhat gospel/Rastafarian combination (only this time from the bands own pens) on “Peace Flags”. Third World were always a reggae band who worked with American soul/funk artists such as Stevie Wonder, members of Kool & The Gang and on this album Gamble & Huff. Even still, this album shifts Third World’s  focus on melodic harmonics over rhythmic music/vocal approaches. It’s a different kind of Third World and at the very least it was a good example of a band progressing as opposed to remaining in the same place just to keep an audience.
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Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘The Force’ by Kool & The Gang

 

Kool & The Gang had been present for every single crucial development in funk music-right along with James Brown. . That being the case,the quality of their output during the funk era was very high in relation to their commercial success. By the time the 70’s entered it’s second half, the music was changing. Kool & The Gang for their part responded very well with their previous release Open Sesame‘. And also added more female singers as well and slicker arrangements. By the time they put out this follow up that hadn’t changed for them. Except their commercial fortunes.

“A Place In Space”, “Slick Superchick”, “Just Be True” and the title song represent what amounts to five in your face K&TG style funk numbers very much in their early/mid 70’s style period-very high on that quotient on their classic funk sound . On songs like “Mighty Mighty High” and “Oasis”, there’s something of a new element beginning to take root in their sound that can also be heard on “Life’s A Song”. The collective style funk vocals are still a huge part of their sound. They have come to better refine the mellower, melodically crafted elements into their hard funk sound.

And why not anyway?  K&TG came from a jazz back round and more than knew their way around a wonderful melody. That shows up pretty much on Khalis Bayyan’s flowering solo on the closer “Free”. This album made it clear they’d more than be able to function outside just cranking out popular funk jams. That there was possibilities for something mildly more popularly engaging.

The best part of The Force is the message in their music is not only intact, but grown in strength and conviction through the musical changes they were beginning to go through. Still as with the album to come, this would be considered something of a load barring album for the band.  An album that was part of a two prong connective thread that served as transitional music between two very different periods of their musical output.

 

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Funk Revelations Of 1987: ‘All Our Love’ by Gladys Knight & The Pips

One of the major conversational elements that springs up between myself and friend Henrique has to do with the music industry. In particular how many within it simply will not (or do not) fully understand the importance of groups in terms of project a singular talent-such as a vocalist. Gladys Knight & The Pips stuck it out very well years and years after many of their contemporaries had. And were having huge success during the 1980’s as well. Gladys herself has a solo career in the late 70’s/early 80’s. But now the entire group was going to try again on a different level.

Midnight Star’s Reggie & Vincent Calloway (assisted her and brother/fellow Pip Bubba Knight) made sure the bands  career together went out with a bang rather than a whimper. “Love Overboard” is a big stomping bass/guitar led late 80’s style melodic dance/funk groove. “Lovin’ On Next To Nothin’ ” adds hand claps and other elements for a more percussive Latin freestyle flavor. The mid tempo “Thief In Paradise” brings a heavier electronic flavor while “You”,”Let Me Be The One”, “It’s Gonna Take All Our Love”,”Point Of View” and “Overnight Success” have strong new jack slow jam overtones.

 The richly melodic, catchy “Complete Recovery”,the more pop oriented “Love Is Life (Love Is Ice)” and the Afro Caribbean inspired “Say What You Mean” round out this album with three more exciting uptempo numbers. While they’re known and celebrated more for individual songs? I’ve always personally viewed Gladys Knight & The Pips as something of an album oriented act as well.

Generally staying close to their own creative process? The group seemed to be keen on avoiding insubstantial filler songs. With a very strong emphasis over the years on quality control.  The Calloway’s are superb on bringing in the harder edged electro rhythmic stomp,chunky bass and guitar as well as keyboards for a phat,yet stripped down late 80’s funky soul approach that gives this iconic group the kind of wonderful sendoff they truly deserved as a functional unit.

 

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Thriller At 35: The Michael Jackson Album That Started Something- The Roots Of An Iconoclastic Album

Thriller remains one of those generational milestones in my life. Its an album that millions upon millions of people around the world from the 60’s and 70’s generation can agree upon. Even people such as myself who experienced new while in the crib. And a day after its 35th anniversary, which my boyfriend reminded me of, still have a lot of questions to ask. Was its success based on its record breaking sales and marketing? And was it truly music that was so universal, everyone could love it? Now approaching its early middle years, Thriller probably stands somewhere in the middle of both questions.

One thing to understand was that Thriller came at a major crossroads of black music in America. There had of course been the post disco backlash/radio freeze out. And that also went along with a recession. Into that mix came MTV in 1981. With what turned out to be an anti black “just rock n’ roll” dog whistle policy to boot. Just over a month after Thriller  came out, the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s career changed. And it took MTV right with it due to the insistence of Jackson’s record label. What’s most important is that as disco “died”, Michael Jackson himself faced a prospect that impacted Thriller deeply.

Michael Jackson was always encouraged to aim high career wise. And he pushed himself to do the same-eventually at the cost of his own life. His Epic label solo debut Off The Wall was a massive success in 1979 and 1980. At the same time, it was caught up in the segregated music chart system America still deals with. Jackson even boycotted the 1980 Grammy Awards due to the racialist pigeon holing. He was used to near instant crossover. And he wanted to make measures to have that happen. The story of Thriller  therefore becomes the story of a songwriter and a band: Rod Temperton and Toto.

Toto were a band that epitomized the west coast AOR sound in the late 70’s/early 80’s. And after the release of their hugely successful Toto V (also in 1982), many of its members came into great demand as session musicians. Toto’s keyboardist Steve Porcoro, his drumming brother Jeff and its guitarist Steve Lukather were part of the Thriller sessions. In fact, Lukather played the lead melodic guitar on “Beat It”- itself an AOR number that became the first rock song on a Michael Jackson album. Of course, the song is best known for its solo from Eddie Van Halen on the bridge.

The most important element to Thriller’s sound was the late composer Rod Temperton. He was a member and creative mastermind of the disco era funk band Heatwave.  His compositions were contemporary. And generally utilized musicians who worked with Thriller’s producer Quincy Jones. People such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa and Jerry Hey. At the same time, Temperton compositions always included jazz/big band style melodic licks within the disco/funk/soul rhythmic settings of his sound. This gave Temperton’s sound a multi generational appeal.

Between Quincy Jones’s production acumen and the musicianship of the members of Toto and Rod Temperton’s crew, the stage for Thriller’s musicality was set. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” opens the album on a theatrically rhythmic note-with its round bass hook, hand claps and Manu Di Bango-like Ebonic chant on the bridge. Baby Be Mine” has similar instrumentation. And is a classic, shiny Rod Temperton poppy funk number. It mixes swinging bass and guitar lick with both orchestral and grooving synthesizer riffs. And its one of my personal favorites on the album.

“The Girl Is Mine” is a slow swinging contemporary pop number. Its a duet with Paul McCartney-with him and Michael playfully vying for the attentions of one woman. The title song of the album originated as “Starlight Sun”. The lyrics to this song are a big ambiguous. But from what I came to understand, it had to do with an interracial romance. The lyrics were alter to focus more on a horror film performance send up. Musically, its actually a more polished variation on the sound of a jazzy funk Heatwave song called “The Big Guns” from the bands Current album, also from 1982.

“Billie Jean” is another strong performance send up, probably Jackson’s most iconic. And funky. The keyboards, the guitar and of course Louis Johnson’s iconic bass line all revolve around the beat of the song. My friend Henrique and I have had discussions about this song being so strong identified with MJ on the club scene, many dancers default to Michael Jackson dance moves when this song plays on the dance floor. The fact that the songs originally long intro almost hampered Thriller’s overall sound quality showcases to just what degree Jackson was in love with the song.

“Human Nature” is another of my favorites on the album. The rhythm is unusually hollow and reverbed. And the instrumentation is more electronic than what’s on most of Thriller. Best way to describe it would be a slightly jazzy boogie/electro ballad. “P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing)” started life as a beautiful Stevie Wonder like demo. Complete with completely different lyrics, melodies and another whole rhythmic approach. The released version is a lean boogie funk style number with a solid rhythm section, squiggly synth riffs and a hard rocking guitar from Steve Lukather on the bridge.

“The Lady In My Life” closes the album with one of two numbers on here that didn’t chart commercially. But it remains a Michael Jackson standard. Its the slowest ballad on the album. And everything from the Fender Rhodes piano, lead synth and bass line emphasize the melody. Its a showcase for Michael Jackson the singer. He’s doing call and response backups to himself here-with comes into play on the outro where he’s echoing  his lead with his bass voice. The song truly showcases what as elastic vocal range MJ had. Its melody even inspired jazz musician Stanley Jordan to cover it several years later.

The writer Rickey Vincent described albums like Thriller as modern day pop standards. To a number of musicians and dance music/hip-hop DJ’s today, these songs have the same type of resonance that the music of Lerner & Lowe, Johnny Mercer, Nat King Cole and Irving Berlin did on past generations of musical artists. Thriller lives on both in physical media and in the online world. Its streamed and downloaded across every major internet platform available today. And the music of the album has gone beyond massive sales success to became part of late 20th/early 21st century Americana.

Through looking back on Thriller now, I think there’s an answer to at least one of my earlier questions about it. And again Henrique already helped verbalize it. None of the songs on Thriller were totally new musically-coming right out of the blue. What it did do was bring together the different strains of black American music (even the racially co-opted rock style) from pop, jazz, soul and pop together in one album. And do so with the best musicians, producers, engineers and an amazing performer at the mic. And in the end, that’s probably why Thriller continues to be an iconic musical work of art.

 

 

 

 

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All ‘N All At 40: Earth Wind & Fire In A Land Called Fantasy

Earth Wind & Fire’s eighth full studio album All ‘N All is music that’s continue to grow with me. Since the very first time I heard it. Only a few days before this writing, my friend Henrique even discussed with me how vital it was that EWF had three drummers aboard during their salad years. There was Ralph Johnson, as well as the bands founder and conceptualist in the late Maurice White. As well as his brother Fred. Maurice himself played drums on the song “Runnin'” from this particular album, a song that’s a particularly jazzy affair.

A somewhat humorous anecdote deals with All ‘N All‘s opening song “Serpentine Fire”. Again from Henrique. We were discussing the songs seemingly sexual playfulness. And how slow the tempo of the song was in relation to the rest of the playing. Turns out in timing the tempo, “Serpentine Fire” clomps along at around 69 BPM. So there is past, present and future lessons to be learned from All ‘N All for its listeners. The future is not ours to see of course. And its also important to absorb the past lessons the music on this album has taught. And I can only truly speak on personal experience in that regard.

All ‘N All has it own rich history. EWF as a band had just survived the tragic loss of Charles Stepney-as well as recording much of their following album Spirit without him. Maurice White then took a much needed vacation with his wife to Brazil and became deeply emerged in the Latin rhythms he heard out of Rio and Sau Paulo. Particularly those of Milton Nascimento. Milton and Maurice came to the conclusion that a combination of their sound would be a strong new element within Earth Wind & Fire. Especially since Afro-Latin percussion was already an enormous aspect of their sound.

Flash forward to the mid 1990’s and I am just getting into the albums of EWF. I remember riding my bike seven miles or so across a lot of traffic to get to the local mall area where there was a record store called Strawberries. Browsing through their cassettes I came across this album on tape. Though the cover was much tinier,it touched on a deep interest I’d had in ancient Egypt and the pyramids of Giza since before I even learned how to ride a bicycle to begin with. Recognizing at least one song on it,and seeing it was in my price range? I decided to purchase it.

After getting this tape home, I put it in my portable cassette player and…found myself travelling in a musical world I am going to try my best to explain to you now. Beginning with a somewhat Michael McDonald sounding Clavinet riff from Larry Dunn,”Serpentine Fire” kicks into high gear with clinging Brazilian percussive funk of the most meaningful order. I could write paragraph after paragraph about the lyric’s seemingly flexible meaning,but the slithering rhythmic nature of the music may tell the story even better. I’ve heard it said that “Fantasy” is rhythmically deep into the “4 on the floor” disco beat.

“Fantasy”‘s cinematic atmosphere transcends anything else for a song celebrating romantic imagination. The Kalimba interlude “In The Marketplace” goes into the furious horn funk of “Jupiter”-probably one of their cleanest played and most under heralded funk numbers they ever made. “Love’s Holiday” is a quintessential EWF mid-tempo groove that is more verse oriented when it comes to Maurice’s lyrical approach than his usually melodic style. The first part of Milton’s “Brazilian Rhyme” is next-concluding in a stomping,funky jam with Verdine’s bass bopping brightly.

“I’ll Write A Song For You” could be viewed somewhat as “Reasons” part II instrumentally -with the songs eloquently romantic lyrics building into a fantastically orchestrated climax. “Magic Mind” is another excellent uptempo funk number-with some of the most elaborate soloing from the Phenix Horns. “Runnin” is one of my favorites here. Starting out as a vocalese led melodic jazz-funk/fusion jam from Philip Bailey,the already heavy Afro-Latin strains in the rhythm come to a percussive frenzy by the songs second half-with Larry Dunn’s kinetic synthesizers bridging the two sections together.

“Be Ever Wonderful” closes the album with its only fully gospel/soul derived song on this album-ending with a triumphantly sung mid tempo ballad.  The only way I could even try to explain this is that the way in which the Brazilian rhythms and bouncing melodies on this album are carried out? The entire quality of the music on this album has the feeling of a journey, the feeling of motion towards a compelling knowledge outside oneself . This album brings mystery into focus,and brings time to a slower crawl. And its funk that is both spiritually deep and commercially successful.

All N’ All, from its gatefold artwork to its thematic content, also embraces ideas somewhere between monotheism and pantheism. Maurice White once referred to the albums title itself as referencing that idea of all human religions representing one higher power. EWF also blend in their variation of the classic secular/spiritual soul music themes. The romanticism of humanity seem to even become a spiritual matter on these songs. From the change in the bands logo to a golden roman style font onward, the entire affair was a musical rebirth for a band still deep in their peak musical powers.

The golden annivesary of this album seems far away. But at a mere decade away? It has just occurred to me that by 2027, all of the Earth, Wind & Fire members from this era may have passed away. But as its been said many times, the result of art is ones footprint in time. All ‘N All has the potential for its footprint not to be fully realized until all of its creators are gone. Thinking about the passing of Maurice White last year, his musical spirit in particular permeates this entire album. And he and his band of musical brothers fashioned a funk/jazz/soul masterpiece from that creative synergy.

 

 

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‘Kick’ At 30: INXS Get A New Sensation

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INXS had an amazing period of growth in the 1980’s. In the first couple of years of the decade, the Australian band were a hard touring post punk/new wave outfit. By 1984’s The Swing, the sound of songs such as the hit “Original Sin” got the heavy funk treatment from the production of Nile Rodgers. From that point on, INXS would be a funk/rock powerhouse. Their songs punctuated by an equal combination of big guitars, grooving horns and bass lines and the versatile, soulful voice of its late lead singer Michael Hutchence. This all came to a head 30 years ago today with the release of Kick.

Kick was part of a massive revival of funk/soul sounds in pop music. Whereas more straight ahead guitar rock had been the dominating force during the earlier part of the decade. In fact, the first time I heard of INXS was the video for the song “Need You Tonight”, whose visuals abstract on the cover art for the album itself.  Their grooving sound and extroverted visual presence made this quite an experience for me. Now I’ve heard the entire Kick album for the first time all the way through. And am going to share with you my observations of it-largely from a funk and soul based perspective.

“Guns In The Sky” starts off the album with pounding, spare drums and brittle lead rock guitar of the Farriss brothers Jon, Andrew and Tim. This is matched with lyrics that lashes out against  people’s obsessions with fire arms.  “New Sensation” is a rhythm guitar fueled fusion of funk and rock-especially its horn fueled chorus. As my boyfriend Scott originally pointed out, there is a banjo (or a very banjo like guitar sound) playing just under the rhythm guitar lick.  “Devil Inside” starts out with a round percussion based sound-with mild rhythm guitar and bass accents of Garry Gary Beers

“Devil Inside” also gradually mutates heavier guitars kick in for a slinky rocker-the hardest edged rock piece on the album. And also the longest song on the album.  “Need You Tonight” is built around stripped down “naked funk” as well as call and response vocals of course. That segues without a break into the hip-hop style drum based number-with jazzy phrased synth pads in the back round while Hutchence’s vocal arrangement is structurally similar to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. On this song however, the lyrics focus squarely on the racially unjust South African apartheid system.

“Tiny Daggers” is a very Stonsey slower 12 bar blues number, with a rocky twist. Also a soul-pop melody on the chorus. In terms of totally melding a rock soloing attitude with a funk rhythm section, “Wild Life” and “Calling On Nations” pull off the fusion without a hitch- in a similar manner to “New Sensation” from earlier in the album. The shuffling “Mystify” and the title track both have mid 60’s “rock ‘n soul” flavors to them-with the sax of Kirk Pengilly’s honking solos. “Never Tear Us Apart”, the albums lone ballad, is an update of the 6/8 time 60’s soul ballad-featuring string and another Pengilly sax solo.

“Tiny Daggers” has the driving drums,melodic piano and jangling rhythm guitar of a Springsteen style heartland area rocker. Its resemblance to another hit from this era, Prince’s “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” brings out an idea I have about the album. With its dead center funk/rock fusion, which Andrew Farriss declared was always part of INXS’ sound, Kick’s dead center funk/rock fusion sound-along with its lyrical themes combining hedonism and social awareness, is something of  an integrated band equivalent to what Prince was doing with his Sign O The Times album in 1987.

Kick is an album that, having heard it all the way through, is a bit of a time capsule of that re-focusing of pop/rock music towards funk and soul was going by 87. Some of the songs are more stronger funk based, others are more straight rockers, and others totally combine them together.  It also went right along with the momentum INXS themselves were on with funk/soul based pop hits like “What You Need” and the aforementioned “Original Sin”.  INXS’s own stylistic trajectory matching up with the times goes with has made Kick so enduring and iconic for late 80’s funk and pop/rock.

 

 

 

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Bruno Mars: Memories Of Doo Wops & Hooligans

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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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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