Tag Archives: musical icons

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Love Will Find A Way” by Lionel Richie

Lionel Brockman Richie’s life journey has a lot of twist and turns. Growing up on the Tuskegee campus of the famous black college right in his home town, he dropped out of the university after his sophomore year. After a brief time considering becoming an episcopal church, he devoted himself to music fully by the mid 60’s. He became the lead singer and sax player of the Commodores in 1968. After a brief stint at Atlantic, the Commodores struck gold at Motown as a major funk band during the mid 70’s. By the late 70’s, Richie’s contributions to the band were mainly as a singer/songwriter.

In 1982, Richie released his self titled solo debut. It turned out to be a 4x platinum hit for him. But mainly on the strength of ballads like “Truly” and the uptempo pop of “You Are”. At this point, the funkiness he displayed in the Commodores would be album tracks for him. His next album,1983’s Can’t Slow Down was a major crossover success for him-a diamond charting album in the vein of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Musically, the hits he was getting were a lot more diverse-from the Caribbean pop of “All Night Long” to the new wave rock of “Running With The Night”. Then there was “Love Will Find A Way”.

A slow,gated drum starts out the song. Then the close bass/rhythm guitar interaction. At the beginning, a Fender Rhodes is carrying the minor chorded lead melody. The rhythm guitar perfectly accents that-with the strings rising just as Richie’s first vocal chorus arriving. There’s also a light synthesizer part featured on the end. On the refrains of the song, the melody becomes a brighter and more major chorded one-with the strings leading back into the choruses.  A slippery,pitch bent synthesizer joins the mix just as the song begins to fade out on its final choruses.

“Love Will Find A Way” is, as my friend Henrique pointed out, a quiet storm groove ballad that also functions as soulful, immaculately produced “sophistifunk” as well. As it turns out, its very mature take on romantic advice dovetails very well into another hit song (and one of my personal favorites from Lionel’s solo career) called “Love Will Conquer All” from his next album-1986’s Dancing On The Ceiling. Same goes for the music of the song as well. Lionel Richie’s solo music, despite its success, has never been based in funk. But “Love Will Find A Way” does bring out that very functional middle ground.

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Mystery Boy” by Culture Club

Culture Club are not only one of my personal favorite bands of the early 80’s. But also considered by many to be representative of the music of that period as a whole. It was formed around the occasional Bow Wow Wow singer George “Boy George” O’Dowd. The rest of the quartet included multi instrumentalists Roy Hay, Mickey Craig and Jon Moss. The conception of the band was a very funk friendly one-to bring in elements of different world musics with Western pop to create meaningful,danceable grooves. It was another element of the group that caught the worlds attention at the time a but more.

Dolled out in Kabuki makeup,flamboyantly colorful clothes and embroidered braided hair Boy George’s image,while likely reflecting the bands multi cultural musical sound to a degree,became controversial due to the openly gay George’s in your face attitude about his sexuality. He refused to hide the fact he was singing about men (perhaps his then boyfriend Moss) in his romantic songs. And flaunted his image with a nudge and swagger. The band were one of the most successful of their time. One of my favorite songs by them was actually a very early one from 1982 entitled “Mystery Boy”.

A pounding 4/4 beat with ringing,Brazilian percussion accents starts out the song-along with the high chicken scratch rhythm guitar that creates the base of the entire groove. The drum turns into a round drum machine for the rest of the song-with the rhythm guitar,vocals and pulsing synth bass-accented by a heavy heavily modulated synth horn. On the refrain,the keyboard sound is bright and more melodic while the rhythm guitar rolls along more. On the refrain,the music breaks down to the synth bass,drums, percussion and modulated synth-gradually building back into the chorus as it fades out.

Culture Club had some amazing soul/Latin/disco/funk tinged pop hits that defined them such as “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”, “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”, “Time (Clock Of The Heart”, “Miss Me Blind”, “Its A Miracle”, “Karma Chameleon” and “The War Song”-often with the accompaniment of big voiced female singer Helen Terry. “Mystery Boy”,which I originally heard as a B-side to my parents 45 of Culture Club’s “Church Of The Poison Mind”. Its a more brittle,driving post disco/boogie funk/New Romantic type song. And every element of the song kept the groove and melody percolating at the same time.

“Mystery Boy” also had its origins in a song originally composed for a Japanese TV commercial for Suntori Hot Whiskey. It just used the music however,the lyrics were originally written purely to sell the products. Some of the lyrics to the song remind of gay people in England in the 70’s and 80’s often referred to each other as “boy and girl”. With George not quite becoming quite so specific in referring to men just yet. In the end “Mystery Boy” showcases not only Culture Club’s funkiness but also their high enough musical quality to produce hit worthy non album tracks.

 

 

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#princeday 2017 Part 2: “Controversy” (1981)

Prince’s image and attitude always went right along with his music. Talking to friends like Henrique today, its a bit easier to notice how obviously Prince carried on the tradition of “freaky” black American artists such as Little Richard. Especially in the early 80’s,Prince wore the clothes of a European dandy,very frilly hairstyles and lots of makeup. While this fit right into the new wave androgyny of the era, some adherents to Reagan era conservatism felt that Prince’s image and blatant lyrical sexuality would send his listeners down an alienating direction in life.

This type of attitude is nothing new against the rock world that,by 1981,Prince was positioning himself to be a part of. But Prince was at his core a funk artist too. And therefore had the same understanding James Brown and George Clinton had of what I’ll refer to as “calculated prettiness”-using wardrobe and image to showcase self control. For his part,Prince decided to record an album that addressed his observations and the perceptions of him for his fourth album. And it was introduced in a tremendous way by its opening title song called “Controversy”

A blast of high synth brass starts out the groove. Followed by a round,brittle synth bass pulse and a marching drum. That soon becomes a steady funk beat with a driving rhythm guitar/bass interaction and bass synthesizer playing the melody. That’s the basic groove of the entire song. On the choruses,the chords go up a key or so and the synths become more orchestral in nature. On two of the bridges,one of which is vocal,the drum/bass and rhythm guitar is the store of the show. On another later in the song, it reduces down more to the synth as the song fades out.

Lyrically the song progresses right along with each part of the naked,stripped down groove. Prince begins by asking the same questions of himself others ask of him: “am I straight or gay”,”was it good for you,was I all you wanted me to be”. On the first bridge,he’s suddenly reciting the Lords Prayer rather reverently. By the end,he’s chanting “people call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there was no black or white/I wish there were no rules”. Prince also sings the majority of this song in his lowest vocal registers-in particular his bass vocal end.

“Controversy”, both musically with its stripped down Minneapolis funk and lyrical self manifesto, could easily be Prince’s “theme song”. As jazz critic Gary Giddins said of Louis Armstrong once,only the great artists are given or write that song that epitomizes them so strongly. This was the very first Prince song my boyfriend Scott ever heard. Controversy would end up becoming a qualifier that would be used to describe Prince and his musical art on many occasions throughout his career. And he really set that whole thing up right here in the funkiest way possible.

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#princeday 2017: “Let’s Work” (1981)

Prince was someone who,for my entire childhood was viewed by me and my family as a rock artist. The promotion of him through the rock press (as well as Prince himself) did seem to foster this impression further. During the 1990’s when I began to understand funk as a musical genre, Prince’s music re-entered my life in a much more serious way. When listening to a lot of his earlier music,it became clear that his music was based in funk. He was an amazing and even sometimes underrated rock soloist. But he focused generally on music with a sleek and spare groove known as the Minneapolis Sound.

Prince would have turned 59 today. Still seems strange that,as my friend Henrique points out many times,that jam fans cannot say “we still have Prince around” anymore. And as tiresome as this is to keep pointing out, Prince’s posthumous musical presence online is still just beginning to branch out the way it deserves to. After this years Grammy Awards tribute to Prince,online streaming service Spotify (along with several other such services) did do us a favor by placing his Warner Bros era music back up to listen to. Thanks to them,am now able to present an overview of Prince’s 1981 jam “Let’s Work”.

A four beat drum count in begins the song. After this, Prince and the band are heard singing the songs title over a slow and steady funk beat-two beats accenting on in the middle. The vocals play call and response with a brittle,high pitched synth horn burst-an extension of which has a flanger effect. Than the 6 note slap bass with variations comes in-accenting by the same synth horns for most the refrain. Those synth horns become much more horn charts on the choruses. After a reboot of the songs intro,that same chorus follows the song to the drum machine segue out of it.

“Let’s Work” is one of those songs that defines Prince’s distinct Minneapolis funk sound during the very late 70’s and early 80’s. Generally only two instruments are heard at any one time. So the funk is very condensed instrumentally. At the same time,the sounds of the synthesized horn blasts and charts,along with the iconic chunky slap bass line, showcase a strong understanding of the depth of funk’s groove,it’s “rhythmic nucleus” as it were. It was also one of his most commercially successfully early 80’s funk numbers as well. That makes it a defining moment in the Minneapolis sound as a whole.

 

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Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Dara Factor One” by Weather Report

Weather Report are probably the first jazz fusion band I ever knew. Each lineup of the band, of course the first official spin off from Miles Davis’s electric period, became musical superstars in their own right. Of course the most famous was the 1978 through 1982 lineup featuring,along with its founding members,drummer Peter Erksine and the incomparable kind of fretless fusion bass Jaco Pastorius. Erksine,a New Jersey born drummer,played with a diverse array of artists. Ranging from his beginnings with Stan Kenton all the way to later collaborations with Kate Bush and even Queen Latifah.

Erkine’s final album with Weather Report was actually a second self titled album, released in 1982. It was the final album for Jaco Pastorius as well. This is one of the Weather Report albums I admit to not continuously exploring as much as it deserves to be explored. But in looking for a song where the traditionally collaborative composing process of Weather Report included Erksine in a greater capacity,this album seems to have closed with such a song. One that just revealed its strength to my ears upon reviewing it for this overview. Its entitled “Dara Factor One”.

Robert Thomas Jr’s percussion and Erksine’s drums start off the song with a deeply funky Afro-Brazilian groove. Joe Zawinul then comes in playing his many layers of synthesizer voices. The first are on the low end of sound, and gradually higher pitched tones come into the mix playing synth horn and string/orchestral charts. Thomas’s percussion rings right along. Jaco’s bass starts out basically hugging tight to Erksine’s drums and Shorter’s sax. By the final parts of the song, he’s at his flamboyant and technically brilliant best circling all around Zawinul’s synthesizers until the song fades itself out.

“Dara Factor One” is one of Weather Reports “moments” of the early 80’s. Each period of their creativity had its own contained brilliance. They also had individual moments that stood out as flat out defining-either for a given musician or the genre itself. This is one of those musician defining songs. Its Brazilian funk/world fusion approach is a truly democratic musical collaboration. Everyone is playing together without grabbing at time to shine as soloists. And all the melodies from Zawinul and Shorter are very vocal-singing away to the dancing rhythm of a very human type of funky Afro-fusion jam!

 

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Stevie Wonder At 67,’Characters’ Nearing Its 30th Anniversary

Characters

Stevie Wonder had entered the 1980’s in an interesting musical position. He began the decade on a political crusade with the late Gil Scott-Heron to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Musically however,his albums began coming fewer and farther between. Since becoming an innovative musical icon after his early/mid 70’s salad days,he was still commercially successful. But the blend of organic and electronic sounds and melodies he’d pioneered was mainstream by the early 80’s. So technically,he wasn’t considered to be so much of a musical innovator anymore.

That being said, Wonder’s songwriting approach was something very few could copy. Especially with all its jazzy complexities. Thus he began developing to the artist he is today: a man whose current music was based more on collaboration and songwriting for and with other artists. Most notably Jermaine Jackson’s “Let’s Get Serious” and Gary Byrd’s “The Crown” during the early 80’s. He only had three formal studio albums during the 80’s though. And the third of them was the 1987 album Characters. It had a home in my family’s cassette collection right when it came out. And fast entered my musical core.

Characters is an album that has garnered mix opinions from everyone from writers to critics to fans. A good deal of that has to do with it being from the late 80’s. And public opinion of changes in music during that time is a complex and controversial one. On a personal level however,its one of my very favorite albums by Stevie Wonder. It came out in a year that also included Prince’s Sign O The Times and when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out. So there was a renewed interests by soul/funk artists of making creatively and commercially successful music in what started as a rather rock based musical decade.

Now Characters is also an album that did indicate the continuing distance black American artists were having with the pop charts at the time. The Top 10 of the R&B charts in American placed the album right within it. He even did an MTV special featuring a guest appearance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to promote the album. But it landed only within the pop Top 20. Still that was enough for many people to appreciate Stevie Wonder making a new album at that time. Five years ago,I wrote a review of this album on Amazon.com going further into the albums more musical virtues.


Stevie Wonder had recorded his previous album In Square Circle in 1983 but released it in 1985. Even though its clear based on internet knowledge that Stevie didn’t write all of the songs on this particular album at the same time. On the other hand,the production was contemporary to its release. Stevie Wonder’s musical success was in a very interesting place in the late 80’s. At only a mere 37 years old Stevie,having been a child prodigy, was already a musically iconic figure before 40. Something of a modern day popular equivalent of a George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in terms of his body of musical accomplishment by this time.

He had created an entire template for funk composition in the 70’s. He was able to show the innovations of funk were not merely instrumentally challenging dance music,but could have its own style of songwriting to accompany it as well. By the 80’s,funk was changing into a more electronic style of dance music that didn’t (and still doesn’t) suit everyone’s fancy. The pop audience had also found a new darling in Michael Jackson,an artist Stevie once helped mentor. For his part Stevie seemed to have no trouble dealing with this. The R&B community still regarded him as their main man,and that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) changed. So in terms of his commercial output,on this album he went more for quality than quantity.

“You Will Know” is a beautifully dreamy mid tempo slow groove opener,with Stevie’s classic multi layered keyboards playing his complex chord structures on a song that pleas for hope among the hopeless. “Dark ‘N’ Lovely” is an intense,uptempo dance/funk piece with some heavy bass Clavinet type synthesizer work mixed with spacier electronics that reflected a theme of darker hued African American’s as being treated differently in society.

“In Your Corner” takes this modern electronic funk instrumentation on a song that reflects more the flavor of 60’s Motown-with a tale that basically picks up where “I Wish” left off:Stevie’s possible imagined (or real for all we know) life as a young adult. “With Each Beat Of My Heart” is a mostly acapella ballad,built upon some transcendent multi tracked harmonies from Stevie and him breathing in the rhythm of a heart beat itself-providing mainly piano and harmonica as the other instrumentation.

“One Of A Kind” is a deeply funky dance number,again built on dynamic harmony and Stevie’s poetically lovelorn lyrical preoccupation. “Skeletons” is a strong funk mashup of themes between “Superstition” and “Part Time Lover”-not too far in flavor from Cameo’s Word Up only a bit warmer and gentler in instrumental flavor.

“Get It” is a heavy dance/funk number-again duetting with Michael Jackson to return the favor from “Just Good Friends” on MJ’s Bad-finding the two aggressively trading off lyrics call and response. The clavinet based funk returns on the wondrously grooving “My Eyes Don’t Cry” whereas “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” marries Stevie’s electronic grooves with a heavy blues featuring a guitar solo from B.B.King playing Lucille herself.

“Crying Through The Night” is one of my own favorites here-a Latin flavored number updated from a song he recorded in the mid 70’s. The two most intriguing songs are “Galaxy Paradise”,which strongly anticipates R&B/funk’s near obsession with Arabic melodies in the 80’s funk context and “Free”,which brings to mind his Bach-styled Clavinet “classical funk” sound for some dynamic “people music”.

This album is actually one of my very favorites of Wonder’s-certainly his finest of the 1980’s for me,as well as his last release of the decade. Not only did he dip strongly into his celebration of the innovation of funk,jazz,soul and European classical that defined his blockbuster 70’s successes but also had the time to anticipate a few modern day funk/soul musical concepts along the way as well. As controversial as this might sound to some 1980’s musical naysayers,this album is easily as innovative and thrilling for its era as Songs in the Key of Life was a decade before this.


Just listening to any Stevie Wonder album,especially if someone is seriously learning about music,can be a school lesson in sound layering and composition in itself. And at the end of the day, Characters was no exception to that rule. Even myself making music on Garage Band with Apple Loops now, I find myself hearing melodic/rhythmic combinations the way Wonder might. Says a lot for Stevie Wonder’s music influencing the creativity of a non musician…sound mixer. Characters above all things showcases how no matter when he created,Stevie Wonder’s sound remained intensely vital.

 

 

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‘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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Star Time At 26: Celebrating James Brown And The Grandest Record Of His Funky Legacy

Image result for James Brown Star Time

Star Time will have been around for 26 years this coming Sunday. And tomorrow would’ve been The Godfathers 84th birthday. The interesting thing about my history with JB is that for a couple of years in the 80’s,I thought that “Unity” and “Living In America’ were his very first songs. There was a huge disconnect between my youth in Maine and the musical arc of JB that still continues to run deep within the African American community. Of course by the end of the 80’s, it was important to my family that JB be appreciated beyond having been arrested for domestic abuse.

That 1988 arrest barely phased me because at the same time, I heard “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” on oldies radio for the first time. So knew this was an artist with serious history. Then almost a decade later,my father played “Cold Sweat” for me. And suddenly the music of James Brown became a necessity rather than a footnote in adolescent musical appreciation. Was deeply exploring funk music than. And JB was the one innovated that genre. Different music books I was reading then stated the definitive way to get into JB’s music was a 4 CD box set entitled Star Time.

Star Time is now a huge key notation between myself and friends online,such as Henrique Hopkins. In fact,it was part of many musical topics that helped he and I develop our friendship earlier on. Far as I’m concerned, its also one of the best multi disc compilation any artist has put together. I actually first discovered JB songs that are among my favorites such as “Think”,”Let Yourself Go”,”Funky President” and “Get Up Offa That Thing” on Star Time. And that is huge encouragement to dig deeper into the vast musical world of James Brown.

During this period, Star Time was a volume far outside the price range my  17 year old self. Luckily I was a member of the old BMG music club. And they had this particular box set on sale for half price. When I ordered it,my father wanted to borrow it disc by disc of course. It made sense. About 90% of JB’s recorded music was unknown to both of us. Of course that’s because James Brown is likely the most prolific black American recording artists in terms of released material. Even Star Time could only scratch the surface. What the box set does do is showcase exactly why James Brown was a major musical icon.

Star Time is a box set that covers JB’s music from 1956 through 1984. It starts out with he and his Famous Flames rhythmically unique take on doo-wop on “Please Please Please” and ends with the first part of his duet with Zulu Nation founder/hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa on “Unity Part 1”. What’s between that is a musical journey that you do not even need to read the wonderful essays included (by writers such as Nelson George) to comprehend. Its just 5 hours of music that showcases the many key points on the musical road of James Brown.

One of the most vital thing about Star Time is how it emphasizes how James Brown’s career wasn’t like a freight train run with a bunch of different stops. It was actually a fluid continuum. James Brown’s nickname “the hardest working man in show business” often referred directly to the almost super human level of touring/live shows he did for much of his life. During these shows,he didn’t merely present his present music of the time. All the periods of his musical progression were covered-adding newer songs as they applied to JB’s performance flow.

Although this is a box set of studio singles presented in chronological order, Star Time still presents that JB continuum in the same way his live shows tended to. Hence it also presents JB as an early precursor to the remix artist too. Original early 60’s versions of “I Got You” and “Its A Man’s World” are presented in the same setting as their better known hit versions as a result. This box sets nearly 30 years worth music music showcases JB going from doo-bop/R&B ballads into his funk innovation-with disco and hip-hop entering the mix later on. Not to even mention hitting on his instrumental music as well.

Even though this album was part of the huge 1990’s CD box set boom,there are few of these box sets that project the musical breadth of the given artist quite the way Star Time does. Given all that, this set doesn’t only entertain. It teaches while your dancing (and even singing) along to the music. Again that’s right in the key of what JB brought to funk: the idea that life was a soulful dance. And that everyone was living to the rhythm whether they realized it or not. So Star Time wasn’t only a musical lesson for myself and others. It can often be a live lesson at the same time.

 

 

 

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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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