Monday, December 29, 2008

posted by O.W.

For every beginning break collector, especially those coming out of the 1990s, it was inevitable that you'd end up with more than a few Freddie Hubbard records. As a trumpeter player, his work - especially for CTI - was such an essential part of the soul-jazz sound of the 1970s that would find renewed resonance two decades later.

Hubbard died today, only age 70, from a heart attack. Here are a few personnel favorites:

Red Clay


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Thursday, December 25, 2008

posted by O.W.

James Brown: Bring It Up
From 7" (King, 1967)

Throw out that Xmas music and get down with the Godfather.

Two years gone but like it says above, his groove never dies.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

posted by O.W.

(from l-r: Alicia Keys, Estelle, Cool Kids, Lil Wayne
Chico Mann, Menahan St. Band, Q-Tip
Robin Thicke, Solange Knowles, Mayer Hawthorne, Raphael Saadiq)

(This post began life on Side Dishes and has "evolved" since).

As I suggested in PART 1, my tastes in 2008 were decidedly retro. Even the new songs I liked still sounded like they were recorded in 1968. But I'm not going to artificially stack my list below to make it seem like I wasn't stuck in some weird throwback mode for most of the year. Here's my favorite new songs of the year:


Solange Knowles: I Decided
From Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (Geffen, 2008)

When I first heard this in early summer, I kept thinking, "it's got the build-up of a Supremes song but then never delivers. The Neptunes' beat just felt weird as a result and I initially dismissed it. Yet, each time I'd hear it, I'd just want to keep listening longer, maybe subconsciously waiting for the "real" beat to drop, but whatever the case, I soon enjoyed it for what it was - infectious pop in the best tradition of Ross and her Supremes. This was, much to my surprise, my favorite pop single of the year.

Estelle: No Substitute Love
From Shine (Atlantic, 2008)

Of course, Solange was hardly the only femme getting her retro-twist on. Besides her, there was also Little Jackie and Estelle, whose Shine album was one of my favorite of the year (see below). I had a hard time choosing which of her various songs were my favorite - I guess I could just have easily gone with the ragga-fied "Magnificent" or the swinging, uptempo "Pretty Please" (produced by Jack Splash, aka my new favorite producer). But "No Substitute Love" (produced by Wyclef) lingers a touch longer in the ear for some reason - it's really all about the hook and the way Estelle pulls her notes out and milks those long vowels.

Q-Tip: Getting Up
From The Renaissance (Motown, 2008)

Not that I haven't already written enough about Q-Tip this year but I'm still marveling at how good a comeback he's made. It's one thing to want to champion an artist, it's another thing when they exceed your expectations. Q-Tip's return was set off by the excellence of this first single that told you some of his ol' magic was back.

The Cool Kids: 88
From The Bake Sale EP (Chocolate Industries, 2008)

Rappers for the hypebeast generation, I like the Cool Kids even if I have little interest/love for their hyper-hipster consumerism. But hey, I'm not that into the crack trade either and that never stopped me from enjoying rappers who only seem to rhyme about Pyrex and fish scales. In the end, pair two decent flows and production that sounds like Magic Mike-meets-Rick Rubin-meets-Salih Williams and that's a good combination.

Raphael Saadiq: Seven
From The Way I See It (FYE Exclusive) (Columbia, 2008)

For all my reservations, I still think Saadiq pulled off one of the best crafted albums of the year, bringing together a masterful blend of '60s soul styles onto one album. However, my favorite song of his this year was actually a bonus cut from the "FYE exclusive" version (who the hell is FYE?): "Seven." I was told that this song is actually a veiled reference to Michael Vick (#7) and if you listen to the lyrics with that in mind, you can hear it. Even without that weird, pop culture nod though, I like how everything on this song comes together: the reverb on the melancholy guitars, the tap of the tambourine, and most of all, that synthesizer that comes in on the chorus with its buzzy texture. (Thanks to Eric L. for the hook-up).

Chico Mann : Dilo Como Yo
From Analogue Drift (forthcoming)

Captain Planet: Boogaloo
From Jazz Loves Dub (Rudiments, 2008)

My DJ partner, Murphy's Law, put me up on both of these by playing them at Boogaloo[la]. Of course, one could cite nepotism in the case of Captain Planet's tune since the two of them are brothers but hey, family relations aside, "Boogaloo" is a great, catchy instrumental that moves with a snappy step and some deft drum programming (love the fill that takes the song out of the bridges). Likewise, the yet-to-be-officially-released "Dilo Como Yo" ("as I say") has a slick Afro-flavored rhythm section and speaks the universal language of tooty-synthesizers.

Menahan Street Band: Home Again!
From Make the Road By Walking (Dunham, 2008)

Funk instrumental albums are a relatively rare breed but Brooklyn's Menahan Street Band pulled off one of the slickest albums in that vein this side of the James Brown Band circa Popcorn. Off that, I couldn't stop listening to "Home Again!" which has this beautifully laid-back feel thanks to the mellow guitar and horn section. Not sure why they put a ! on the title of such a languid composition but I'm more than happy to shout its praises.

Lil Wayne: Let the Beat Build
From The Carter III (Cash Money, 2008)

I still think Carter II was the better album but hey, I'm not going to begrudge Wayne his success this year (the record industry needed some good news). But even if Carter III didn't quite exceed expectations, Wayne still came with some killer cuts. "A Milli" made a huge impact but the song that I kept coming back to was "Let the Beat Build." What can I say? Gospel-tinged vocals + Wayne's verses + slowly evolving beat = untouchable. So sick it gave birth to ill twins (see Honorable Mentions below).

Mayer Hawthorne and the County: Just Ain't Gonna Work Out
From 7" single (Stones Throw, 2008)

This Detroit native turned L.A. transplant takes Allen Toussaint's drums and lays it under a simple but catchy melody and then unleashes that soulful falsetto to get the groove right. Heartbreak rarely sounded so achingly sweet.

Erykah Badu: Honey (DJ Day Remix)
From 7" (Day1, 2008)

Take one of the best songs from one of year's best albums and then give it a fantastically smart and intuitive remix and you get this. In hindsight, it probably seems obvious to remake Badu's "Honey" with Delegation's "Ooh Honey," but Day gives the pairing a natural depth (something he excels in as heard previously in that Marvin Gaye edit) that, dare I say, makes his remix sound better than the original.

Robin Thicke: Ms. Harmony
From Something Else (Interscope, 2008)

As I wrote in the L.A. Weekly, Thicke's sweetest confection off his third album was “Ms. Harmony,” a bossa nova-flavored blend of dreamy guitar melodies, Latin percussion and Thicke’s own, mojito-cool vocals. I don't much more to add except to say that I've been playing this as an "end of the night" song for parties and my, my, my, does it work nicely.


Alicia Keys: Teenage Love Affair
From As I Am (J Records, 2007)

I know this album came out in 2007 but, um, I just started to listening to it this past week and "Teenage Love Affair" has been on constant rotation since. Single-song-repeat rotation. Part of why I'm so taken by it is how Jack Splash juices up the loop from the Temprees and gives Keys' tune such a richness and catchy drive. The other half is how Keys handles this song with just the right blend of burgeoning sexuality and chaste coquettish-ness. I think I have a school boy crush on "Teenage Love Affair."

Quantic and Nicodemus: Mi Swing Es Tropical
From Ritmo Tropical EP (Tru Thoughts, 2005). Also on Shapes.

Like the Ray Barretto I wrote up on Part 1, I owe my discovery of this to Rani D. I love both songs for the same reason: electric piano + Afro-Latin sabor = unbeatable combination. That and, on this song, Nicodemus' vocals lend a gruff contrast to the soothing sweetness of the melody. I can't believe I never heard this until this past year since I'm a big fan of Quantic. This is easily my favorite track of all his tunes.

Honorable Mentions:
1. Busta Rhymes: Don't Touch Me
2. Freeway: Let the Heat Spill freestyle
3. Lauren Flax: You've Changed
4. Al Green: All I Need
5. J-Live: The Upgrade
6. Johnson and Jonson: The Only Way
7. Little Jackie: 28 Butts
8. Lone Catalysts: Make It Better
9. Roots: Rising Down
10. Usher: In This Club

If-I-Had-To-Come-Up-With-A-Top-10-Albums-List List:

1. Erykah Badu: New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War
2. Cool Kids: The Bake Sale EP
3. Estelle: Shine
4. Final Solution: Brotherman OST
5. Kanye West: 808s and Heartbreaks
6. Q-Tip: The Renaissance
7. Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It
8. LIl Wayne: The Carter III
9. Menahan Street Band: Make the Road By Walking
10. V/A: Verve Remixed 4

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posted by Eric Luecking

Donny Hathaway: This Christmas
A Donny Hathaway Collection (Atlantic, 1990)

John Legend: Jesus, What A Wonderful Child
NBC Sounds Of The Season: The John Legend Collection (Sony, 2006)

Although the Donny track is quite well-known, it's one of those songs that just can't be overplayed. In fact, I find myself playing it year round. Sure, it has its checklist of Christmas references – fireside, trimming trees, caroling – but it never feels forced like so many non-traditional Christmas songs. The production is excellent with its uplifting horn arrangements and even that teaser fade out/fade in ending. I'm assuming it's an Arif Mardin production, although I don't have the liner notes handy. It's amazing how little information there is available on not only this song, but a more in-depth look into Hathaway's career as a whole.

On “Jesus, What A Wonderful Child,” John Legend channels his church background for a holy spirit-filled exercise. With just 88 keys at his fingers is where he really excels. This track is available on the 2006 Target-only release; if you're lucky you might still be able to catch it at Target during the holiday season. Glory Hallelujah, indeed! If you can find the EP, I highly recommend getting it as it's got other stripped renditions, including a beautiful performance of “Oh Holy Night.”

Merry Christmas and safe travels to all of you!

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

posted by O.W.

(from l-r, Alton Ellis, Edwin Starr, Labi Siffre, The Impressions
Joe Bataan, Stevie Wonder, the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band
Bobby Matos, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Skye 7")

(This post began life on Side Dishes and has "evolved" since).

I had a strange realization the other week: 2008 might be the first year where I spent more time listening to older music than new music. This hasn't been out of nowhere - it's been a long-term shift but it hit me, when I was trying to come up with the standard "Top 10" list that I'm not even sure if I actually listened to 10 new albums in '08.

Not just that: even the new music I did like tended to overwhelmingly be music that sounded like it was from another era - Raphael Saadiq, Solange Knowles, Mayer Hawthorne, etc. For real - if there was one big presence in my 2008 year-in-review, it was Motown! Not only do quite a few Motown artists fill up my "old music I discovered this year list," amongst the new artists, several of them ride off the Motown sound and one of them (Q-Tip) is actually signed to Motown.
I turned 36 this year but why do I feel like my tastes are that of a 66 year old?


On one hand, your tastes are your tastes and if that's the direction I'm leaning, maybe I should just shrug and enjoy it. I don't have the professional pressure to have to stay as current as my colleagues do but as I said last year, I also don't want to be a born-again baby boomer (even though my fascinating with the 1960s has only grown this past year).

So here's my New Year's Resolution For 2009: I shall listen to more new music and ideally, not new music that sounds like old music. (We'll check back a year from now and see where I'm at).

This all said, here's Part 1 of my year-in-review, beginning with old music I (re)discovered.

Edwin Starr: Running Back and Forth
From War & Peace (Gordy, 1970)

I get music recommendations from all sorts but no one is more influential than my friend Hua who has probably put me up on more of my more recent "new favorite songs" than any other single source I know. It helps that he has kick ass taste as well as a circle of friends in NY who have equally good taste and so I get some of these recommendation second, even third hand but heck - I ain't too proud!

Case in point: this lesser known single off Starr's big selling War and Peace album. It's easy enough to forget that there was any other songs from that LP given how successful and iconic the "War" single became but when I first heard "Running Back and Forth," I had a proverbial jaw-drop over how good it was and that it'd be from the same album. This song oozes with classic Motown production strengths of its era (RIP Norman Whitfield!), especially in its brass and the driving push of the sound bed. Seriously, try to piece apart all the little bits of the music; it is dense yet comes off sounding clean and simple. In contrast to Starr's forceful polemicizing on "War," here, he's in classic love man mode, trying to kick some game. (Bonus points for the Sam Cooke nod on the bridge).

Labi Siffre: A Little More Line
From S/T (Pye, 1970)

This British singer, songwriter and poet has a voice you can't soon forget - it's not the most powerful, nor the most dynamic - but it is so distinctive and soothing, it stays with you long after the song's end. I especially love how this song builds from an almost hymnal opening only to swell in size and sound with the string orchestration and some killer work on the drums. Siffre's entire catalog from the '70s is classic material (even if many of you probably have never heard of him). This was from his debut album and it's just as good of a place to start as any to enjoy his gifts.

Alton Ellis: What Does It Take To Win Your Love
From Sunday Coming (Coxsone, 1971)

There is something humbling discovering this song the year of Ellis' death. My awareness of him preceded his passing but I had been giving Ellis' cover of Jr. Walker's hit much spin in the first part of the year that when Ellis passed away in October, I found myself coming back to his catalog again and again. Ellis was arguably reggae's finest soul man, not just with his covers but also original compositions.

The Impressions: I'm Loving Nothing
From This Is My Country (Curtom, 1968)

In a year of Obama's ascendency, there are no doubt more apropos songs from the Impressions' catalog but the song of theirs that will haunt me is "I'm Loving Nothing." Its beauty seems almost profane given that this is all about the death of love. Not something you'd want as a first dance at your wedding but doesn't it sound like an embrace rather than slow turn away?

Bonnie and Shelia: You Keep Me Hanging On
From 7" (King, 1971). Also on New Orleans Funk Vol. 2.

King is best known as the home of James Brown for many of his pivotal funk productions of the late 60s but at least for this single, the Cincinnati-based label picked up a slice of NOLA funk thanks to this excellently produced tune from Wardell Quezerque. One of my new favorite femme funk tracks, "You Keep Me Hanging On" reminds me a lot of the snap and sass of Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff." Hang with it.

Ray Barretto: Pastime Paradise (Good Parts Edit)
From La Cuna (CTI, 1981)

Gotta thank my man Rani D for hepping me to this Barretto song. As big of a fan I am of the late master's work, I had never listened to anything he did past the early '70s and I was mightily drawn to how good this cover of Stevie Wonder's song is. The sound of this song is just so gorgeous, especially the first few minutes but I did have to admit I wasn't quite as enamored with the vocals...and cheesy sex...and bad, Santana-wannabe rock guitar. So I just cut all that out and left you with a 1/3rd length "best of" edit from the song. Like Bobby B. - it's my prerogative.

Joe Bataan: Ordinary Guy (7" version)
From 7" (Fania, 1967)

"Ordinary Guy" has been Joe Bataan's enduring hit for over 40 years but this version, which only appeared on 7" single, isn't well known and when I first heard it, I was instantly enamored. It's not entirely clear what Fania's thinking was but they brought in pianist Richard Tee to give the song a a subtle new dynamic, most obviously heard in how different the new intro is. Tee's piano has a strong presence, especially with an arrangement that sounds very much like the beginning of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Precious Love." This is probably my favorite version of the song, precisely for that intro which gives the tune such a rich, soulful feel to it.

Bobby Matos: Nadie Baila Como Yo
From My Latin Soul (Phillips, 1968)

I've owned Bobby Matos and Combo Conquistadores' incredible My Latin Soul album for years, but I had somehow totally overlooked the incredible charm of "Nadie Baila Como Yo" (nobody dances like me). It wasn't until I heard the Boogaloo Assassins play it at their shows that I was reminded of how damn good it is; it's since become, easily, one of my favorite Latin songs ever. Love how it changes up from a guanguanco into a son montuno and has those beautiful keyboard chords anchoring.

Skye: Ain't No Need (Unity Mix)
From 7" (Ananda, 1976)

When I was out in New York earlier this year, Jared at Big City Records slipped a reissue of this 45 into my hand and I was hooked (and then later, managed to procure an original from the Groove Merchant). Sometimes all you need is a good groove and this obscure disco single from the mid-70s delivers a one helluva great groove that just goes on and on and on. Under other circumstances, I'd find the whole thing repetitious but somehow, I don't tire of it. Ever. (I created this "Unity Mix" which combines the original mix and disco mix in a simple edit).

Stevie Wonder: Send Me Some Lovin'
From I Was Made to Love Her (Motown, 1967)

Heck, I could have filled this list with Stevie Wonder songs I've been rediscovering but "Send Me Some Lovin'" has stood in front of that line. I love the small touches of funk to the arrangement, especially those pianos at the very beginning. This has a fantastic groove to it and you put Stevie's distinctive vocals on top of that and you have an unbeatable combination.

Songs that are technically new (i.e. that just came out) but are based on older recordings:

Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band: Express Yourself (alternate version)
From Puckey Puckey: Jams and Outtakes, 1970-71 (Rhino Handmade, 2008)

This was a real gem from the Puckey Puckey anthology that I wrote the liner notes for. It's a completely alternate recording of the Watts 103rd's big hit, "Express Yourself." Compared to the original, this one is far more languid, like the group was nearing the end of their recording day and just wanted to something to chill out to, maybe smoke a bowl to (as they were known to).

Final Solution: I Don't Care
From Brotherman (Numero Group, 2008)

Provided - their name was terrible. No one wants to think of the Holocaust while groovin' to sweet soul - but even if the Chicago band formerly known as the Kaldirons probably could have chosen a better name for themselves, at least the music speaks for itself. The album - a soundtrack for a blaxploitation film never made - has an interesting backstory all its own but for now, all you need to know is how damn good "I Don't Care" is. Especially when paired with that melancholy but heavy guitar melody by newcomer Carl Wolfolk, there's something sublime about how the group's falsetto voices come coasting in on top of the track. It's a mix of slow-building drama with an angelic set of voices, lending a gospel-like quality to the music's otherwise dark undertones.

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (DJ Day Edit)
From 7" single (MPM, 2008)

This single just came out a week or so ago and it finds California's DJ Day reworking an alternative version of Marvin Gaye's classic "What's Going On" in a way so clean and organic that even Motown fanatics would swear it was a lost tape from the label's vaults. I don't know why it sounds so perfect with the season but there's something warm and comforting about this that makes you want to wrap yourself in it.

Nina Simone: Gimme Some (Mike Mangini Remix)
V/A: Verve Remixed 4 (Verve, 2008)

Frankly, this song had three killer remixes that I found almost equally commendable including Diplo's remix of Marlena Shaw's "California Soul" and the smoky Chris Shaw remix of Sarah Vaughn's "Tea For Two". But if I had to pick amongst that trio, this Nina Simone reworking took the slimmest of leads, possibly because it's so damn happy (which is not an adjective I often associate with Her High Priestess. Seriously though, this whole album is nice.

Honorable Mentions:
1. Patti Drew: Stop and Listen
2. Joubert Singers: Stand On the Word
3. Ceil Miner: Stardust
4. Aaron Neville: She Took You For a Ride
5. New Holidays: Maybe So, Maybe No
6. Nick and Valerie: I'll Find You
7. Pedrito Ramirez y su Combo: Micaela
8. Bobby Reed: The Time is Right
9. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: If You Can Want
10. Tammi Terrell: What a Good Man He Is

PART 2: NEW(ISH) MUSIC (to follow soon!)

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Monday, December 22, 2008

posted by O.W.

Alicia Keys: Teenage Love Affair
From As I Am (J Records, 2007)

The Temprees: (Baby) I Love You
From The Lovemen (We Produce, 1972)

If people thought my recent discovery of Lorraine Ellison was surprising, get this: I basically slept on the entire last Alicia Keys' album until, um, now. Provided, being 15 months late (Keys) may not seem much compared 40 years (Ellison) but considering that Keys' album is multiple times platinum and she's not exactly an obscure pop figure, it's understandably strange that I would have missed the boat on this one...especially since I genuinely like Keys. But somehow, I totally missed the release of As I Am back in Sep. of 2007 and with the exception of "No One" (which was inescapable), I hadn't heard anything else off it.

So it's pretty funny that suddenly, "Teenage Love Affair" has been on constant rotation. It's rarely that I dig a new pop song that fact, the last tune to have earned the "repeat 1" button was...Keys' "You Don't Know My Name." You would have thought I would have learned the last time!

So yeah, yeah, I get the late pass. I don't really care though - better late than never to discover one of your favorite songs of the year...a year late. Few thoughts:

1) 'Nuff respect to Jack Splash for hooking up this Temprees song. Ironically, I posted on the very album this song appears on earlier this year but I never really gave "Baby, I Love You" much spin and it took Splash's track to make me better appreciate the O.G. tune (viva sampling!). Dare I say though: he gives the original loop a boost that makes this a rare case where the progeny >>> progenitor. Specifically, the way he makes the guitar even more prominent and milks the keys are what help give Alicia's song such a memorable musical hook. Nice work and it also made me look up Splash's overall credits which, I was pleased to note, included some of my favorite songs off Estelle and Solange Knowle's albums. (Jack - if you ever want to do a summer songs post, holler).

2) Some have accused Keys of going too far towards the "big diva" vocal over-singing and while I can see that applied to "No One," I found her performance here more nuanced. The high point comes with the bridge towards the end where she slips into her "First base, second base" countdown. And while it may be in keeping with the song's "high school love" theme for her to "pump the brakes" on third base, it was refreshing to hear a pop song that wasn't drowning in sexuality. Not that I mind the latter but maybe as a parent now, I find a touch of chasteness to be charmingly chaste.

3) The video for the song is enjoyable on a whole 'nother level. Swoon.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

posted by O.W.

Bo Diddley: Go For Broke
Bo Diddley: Bad Side of the Moon
From Another Dimension (Chess, 1971).

Bo Diddley: I've Had It Hard
From Where It All Began (Chess, 1972)

All three also on Drive By Bo Diddley, Tales From the Funk Dimension, 1970-1973.

I was cleaning out one of my folders and realized that I had digitized a few Bo Diddley songs for a post meant to commemorate his life after his passing this year...but then forgot to put them up. Oops. Please file under "better late than never."

The first two come off of DIddley's Another Dimension, an album he recorded for Chess in the early '70s. I have no idea how these went over with Diddley's older fans but for funk heads, it's always been one of his best albums, largely thanks to the drum work by John Birganti who just nails a few ace breaks on this album. Birganti (I've also seen his name spelled Briganti) is a curious figure; he only appears on a few albums, including a Ben E. King LP, but he actually helped write "Go For Broke" and certainly adds a defining touch to many of the songs on this album.

"Bad Side of the Moon," I was surprised to learn, was originally an Elton John song; you would have sworn it was some Dr. John tune given that its swamp funk feel. Once again, Birganti laces this song with a beaut of an opening break, especially as it drops in from that echo effect at the intro.

"I've Had It Hard" is one of the many Bo songs to use his much vaunted, clave-influenced "Bo Diddley beat." It's so much a part of his musical signature that once you hear that little "bam-bam-bam...bam-bam" shuffle come in, you instantly think of Diddley. This one's from Where It All Began (always loved the cover art for it), another one in his early '70s catalog, though this one leans back towards his blues material compared to Another Dimension.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

posted by O.W.

Roy Budd: Get Carter Theme
Roy Budd: Getting Nowhere In a Hurry
From Roy Budd Plays and Conducts Great Songs and Great Themes from Great Films (Pye, 1971)

Besides being one of the great Michael Caine films - back when he was brooding and cold as ice - Get Carter also was laced with one of the better soundtracks courtesy Roy Budd. I don't have a ton to say about them except to laud them as slick pieces of background music that capture a style and atmosphere both subtle and precise. Budd brings in a very eclectic set of sounds here, it's definitely beyond just an ominous loop. "Getting Nowhere In a Hurry" is especially great with its balance between those choral vocals and the instrumental passages (lovin' the clavinet).

I was surprised to learn that the original soundtrack for Get Carter is exceptionally rare; a real Holy Grail find. Luckily, some of Budd's main compositions ended up on the more affordable (though not dollar bin) Plays and Conducts Great Songs comp from the early '70s.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

posted by O.W.

I just got back from watching this early cut of The Boat that Rocked which is about the offshore British pirate stations of the mid-1960s.

The movie had its problems but of course, it's an early cut so hopefully, they'll iron those out. The more important thing is that, thanks to it, I heard, for the first time, this song:

Lorraine Ellison: Stay With Me Baby
From 7" (Loma, 1966). Also on Stay With Me: The Best Of.

This song is epic and a definite face-melter. How have I never heard this before? I feel so unworthy of its greatness.


Monday, December 15, 2008

posted by O.W.

Mary Wells: Two Lovers
Marvin Gaye: I'll Be Doggone
The Supremes: The Happening
Eddie Kendricks: Shoeshine Boy
T.G. Shepherd: Devil in the Bottle
Brenda Holloway: You've Made Me So Very Happy
All from The Complete Motown #1s (Motown, 2008)

As for many children of baby boomers, Motown was my introduction to soul music thanks to what I'd hear my dad listen to in the car. But even though I - like millions of Americans - would become intimately familiar with Motown's train of hits over the years, it took much longer for me to actually, truly appreciate the label's musical aesthetic.


I think partially that's because even though Motown was my entryway into R&B, it was Southern soul - Al Green, Aretha Franklin with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Stax, etc. - that was my first love when it came to rhythm and blues. And while the whole Detroit vs. Memphis dichotomy is overbaked (the two unquestionably inspired one another through the years), for a long time, by throwing my camp in with Soulsville, that meant a frostier relationship to Hitsville. Motown's sheer ubiquity certainly didn't help, especially when I wanted my musical tastes to run deeper than The Big Chill soundtrack.

But once you get past the snobbery of not wanting to like what a billion other people like, it's hard to deny the beauty and polish of Motown, whether you're talking about the incredible songwriting from folks like Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder to Holland-Dozier-Holland's expert writing and production to the musical mastery and output of the Funk Brothers. Alas, I don't have the space to rap rhapsodic about the complexities of Motown's grandeur, but you can read up on your own.

Just in time for the holidays, Motown has put out an impressive new, 10 CD boxset called The Complete Motown #1s which compiles, from 1960's "Shop Around" (The Miracles) to 2000's "Bag Lady" (Erykah Badu), all 191 of Motown's chart-topping hits (plus 10 bonus songs). All this is packaged inside a stunning box designed to look like the original house Motown called its home. Good packaging may feel like a lost art these days but I have to say; this one knocks it out the park.

This said, I do have some nitpick critiques to make and I'll just get these out of the way first. To begin, organizing an anthology by focusing exclusively on #1 hits is normally the compilation equivalent of preaching to the choir. You're basically selling people the songs they already know. It's lucrative, to be sure (just ask these guys), but musically speaking, it's not meant to be adventurous.

Moreover though, it also raises the question of how you define what a "#1 hit" is and the compilers deployed some creative means in order to arrive at 191. Most of these songs were #1 on either the Billboard pop or R&B charts and that's perfectly reasonable, but at times, they also dip into other magazines like Cash Box and Record World when the Billboard charts are not, shall we say, cooperative? The biggest stretches are for songs like the Commodores' "Lady (You Bring Me Up)" which was #1 in the late summer of New Zealand. At that point, you have to wonder if they're just trying to pad the numbers.

That said, in all fairness, this boxset isn't trying to be anything more than it is: the greatest of greatest hits collections and Motown hasn't exactly slumped in plumbing the full depths of their catalog through other means, including the incredibly, exhaustive "Complete Singles" series, which (so far) has stretched from the first volume which covered 1959-61 up through the upcoming volume 11a which is just for the first half of 1971. (These series also fill in my other beef with the Complete #1s: the lack of liner notes in the booklet (which does have great photos and full discographic info). That's not to mention the equally compelling Cellarful of Motown series of unreleased and rare vault selections.

As for the upsides of the boxset, the first is that despite having what you would think is song after song of "obvious" hits, it's easy for even a seasoned Motown fan to get reacquainted with more than a few songs that weren't always as monster as, say, The Supremes' "Baby Love" or the Temptations' "My Girl." For example, I had forgotten about how excellent Mary Wells' smoky ballad, "Two Lovers" was or how Marvin Gaye's "I'll Be Doggone" was so subtly funky and melodic at once. And then there were songs I had never heard before, including The Supreme's "The Happening" (a #1 pop hit in May 1967) or Eddie Kendricks' "Shoeshine Boy", a slick 1975 R&B hit. You also get the idea that the compilers probably had a kick in including Motown's two country hits, both by T.G. Shepherd who recorded for the Motown subsidiary, Melodyland and scored #1s in 1974 and '75.

Appealing to my desire to want to go beyond just the top of the charts, I appreciate the bonus tracks, which were all Motown songs recorded by other artists who then hit #1 with them. This includes a few songs which you would have thought were #1s originally, such as Martha and Vandellas' "Dancing in the Streets" (which later would become a #1 hit - albeit done astoundingly cheesy - for David Bowie and Mick Jagger in 1985). But that also included a few songs that I didn't realize originated with Motown, such as "You've Made Me So Very Happy" which I've always associated with Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1969 but was first recorded by Brenda Holloway in '67 (and done beautifully, I may add).

Analyzed by chronology, one of the things that surprised me about the Complete #1s was how quickly the comp is done with the '60s, which I've always considered to be the label's halycon era; by midway through Disc 3 (and this is a 10 disc set, remember), we're already into the '70s. Of course, those first three discs also contain probably the best known Motown hits within America's collective memory, in terms of what we think of when we think "Motown."

I was also struck at how strongly the sound of Motown shifted even as early as 1969 or so. New artists like the Jackson 5 with "I Want You Back" or producers like Norman Whitfield, working with the Temptations were radically shifting the style of Motown, partially in a nod to the changing sounds around them but also as a result of infusing the label with new blood. Equally striking is what ends up missing from Motown's 1970s era - many songs you might associate with the label's talented roster weren't, in fact, ever #1 singles, such as Stevie Wonder's "Love's In Need Of Love Today", arguably one of the greatest composition he ever recorded. Likewise, while Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" is duly represented, he doesn't appear very often after that (only twice) but it's not as if Gaye's career ended in 1973. What you realize is that Motown's great achievement wasn't based around singles any more (even though the label enjoyed a slew of those still); it was really about albums at that point - a quality of Motown's greatness that, unfortunately, this comp can't capture given its basic concept.

This has to be contrasted against the vast breadth of the offerings though - even if just looking at singles isn't the most accurate way to appreciate Motown's evolution, it is awe-inspiring to realize that the same label that brought you the Marvelette's "Please Mr. Postman," would be the same one to also drop Obama's favorite, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" by Stevie Wonder, Rick James' "Superfreak" and Boyz II Men's "End of the Road."

In the end, the Complete #1s is designed for the populist Motown fan, the one who will be drawn to its consolidation of 40 years of chart-topping smashes nicely boxed (and seriously, it is nicely boxed) into a neat, simple package. Ideally though, it's meant to serve as a starting point rather than end. Once you cross the recreated door on the box's front, it's easy enough to lose yourself within Motown's sprawling house of hits.

(Originally posted to Side DIshes)

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

posted by O.W.

RBL Posse: Don't Give Me No Bammer Weed b/w Sorta Like a Psycho
From 12" (In-A-Minute, 1991)

One of the great things about Bay Area hip-hop radio in the early 1990s was that programming on stations like KMEL and KSOL was far more diverse than what you'd expect in today's media consolidated days of national playlists. That's why, in that brief period, you could tune in and expect to hear both the latest hits coming out of New York alongside something like the RBL Posse's "Don't Give Me No Bammer Weed," or Total Devastation's "Many Clouds of Smoke."

The single's B-side is one of the cases where you have a humorous disconnect between music and lyric; the beat has much lighter and slightly happy feel to it compared to verses about infrared Glocks and crack sacks.

By the way, I always assumed this 12" (which is not an easy catch despite how big of a song it was) came out before RBL Posse's A Lesson To Be Learned album but the album is from 1992 and the single says it was pressed in 1993. Anyone know if there were multiple pressings of this?

Peep the video too:

RIP Mr. Cee!


posted by O.W.

The Van Dykes: No Man Is An Island
The Van Dykes: Hey Lonesome Man
From Tellin' It Like It Is (Bell, 1967)

I first heard "No Man Is An Island" at the Groove Merchant and was instantly mesmerized by it though I couldn't put my finger on it at the time. Musically, this Forth Worth, TX vocal trio is backed by such a minimalist accompaniment - there's that low hum of the organ and a little electric guitar and that's about it - no drums, no bass, no piano, etc. But there is Rondalis Tandy's falsetto - oh yes, there is that. And backed with Wenzon Mosley and James Mays, the whole package manages to distill a pure essence of soulfulness that it is forever haunting.

The song was originally recorded for their producer Charles Stewart's label, Hue, but was quickly picked up by Mala Records where the group enjoyed a run of about half a dozen singles (most of them are expensive and in-demand). In 1967, Bell (which Mala was a subsidiary of) compiled most of these singles together for the Tellin' It Like It Is LP and then also added "Mr. Lonesome Man" (which hadn't appeared on single before). On that song, Stewart (I presume) adds "more" of a musical accompaniment but even with the addition of a bass, it still comes back to the piercing vocals to give the song its biggest impact.

Alas, the group didn't last for very long, apparently breaking up by 1968, with two of the members staying in TX while Tandy moved off to California. Despite their relatively short career, the group has attracted a serious following over the years, with several compilations dedicated to their material. Take a listen and understand why.

(Thanks to Marv Goldberg's excellent history)


posted by Captain Planet

Makonde : Soseme Makonde & Manzara
taken from the 12" single on EMI (1977)

*inspired by FACEMELTERS*

Haven't been bringing out too many rares lately, but not because I've had any real trouble stumbling upon them. Even with my wallet as empty as it has been these past couple months, I've still managed to pull some pretty crazy finds. I've been pushing myself to stay out of record stores as much as possible, but when I pass someone standing on the sidewalk in the cold behind a underappreciated crate- I feel almost an obligation to pull out enough money to get them a cup of soup and a hot coffee (even if it ends up going towards a lil fire water in the end).

That brings us to this latest discovery of Swahili disco funk from '77. The cover was beat to hell which is probably why other people overlooked it, but the record (brilliant BLUE VINYL with a LEOPARD PRINT LABEL!) was kept in another sleeve and remained in great condition. Dropping the needle on side A was like opening the gate to King Kong's beastly lair. Deranged warbling mumbles and pounding drums are soon met with a pulsing bass, a simple chant, and then what sounds like a drunken Moog synth doing the running man. This is exactly the type of track that first inspired me to start
Captain's Crate.

The B side, perhaps equally as incendiary, sounds almost like the Kenyan version of
The Commodores "Machine Gun", but with fatter drum breaks. Turns out Kon & Amir unearthed this monster before me and even featured it on their recent Kings Of Digging CD for the BBE label- makes me feel pretty lucky about turning this one up. They did a nice little edit on their CD which extended the drum breaks, but I figured I'd give you both tracks unedited so you'll have to practice your Serato juggling skills if you want to keep the break rolling.

Friday, December 12, 2008

posted by O.W.

Perhaps the only thing as humbling as incredible music are people who share incredible music. That's why I'm always thankful that people like Matthew Africa have gotten into blogging - his "I Wish You Would" is a must-read; if you're not looking at his site at least as often as you check this one, you're missing out. After all, Matthew is dropping that AAA grade butter tracks like Michael Sardaby's "Welcome New Worth" and Frankie Beverly and the Butlers' "Love (Your Pain Goes Deep)" on the regular. If folks knew how hard it is to come by songs like that, you'd understand where the humbling comes in.

Along these lines: a truly, devastatingly humbling song is what some call face-melters:

It requires more of a song than to be merely "good" to qualify as a face-melter. It has to be something so unexpectedly awesome that its inherent greatness is enough to slough flesh off your skull (metaphorically speaking). Here's a trio of my favorites:

Black Rock: Yeah Yeah
From 7" (Selectohits, 197?)

Los Amaya: Caramelo A Kilo
From 7" (Sabor, 1972)

New Hope: Godofallofus
From Godofallofus (Light, 197?). Also on Strange Breaks and Mr. Thing.

Most people were introduced to Black Rock's thunderous "Yeah Yeah" thanks to the now-legendary Chains and Black Exhaust mix-CD from 2002 and I had been put up on it a couple years earlier by DJ Om. The face-melt part comes partly from how the song opens so enigmatically, with its deep, booming "Blaaaaaaaack Rooooooooock" and those strings that build towards the unexpected hammer drop of piano, guitar and drums that come crashing in at about 30 seconds in. Hold ya head! This is still one of the best funk instrumentals I've ever heard (in fact, if you got ones that top it, comment please and share the wealth of knowledge).

"Caramelo A Kilo" is a bit of flamenco funk from a pair of Barcelona brothers. I can't quite tell if "Caramelo A Kilo's" origins are Spanish or Afro-Cuban (I'm inclined to say the latter) but regardless, Los Amaya give the song the rumba catalana make-over with those wicked gypsy guitars, heavy bongo beats and a swinging set of vocals: the sonic embodiment of caliente. Way too short at less than two minutes!

As for "Godofallofus"...*whistle* I've heard plenty of excellent gospel funk but New Hope finds some next level with a song that sounds like it was made for hip-hop use, just 30 years ahead of time. Those drums! That tuba! Those horns! Those crazy, Hair-era arrangements and ARP synths. As DJ Format and Mr. Thing knew to call it: Holy. Sh--. This whole song is one long mind-blower. (Props to Young Einstein for the hook-up on this LP).

You feel the heat yet?

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

posted by O.W.

The full flavor.

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posted by O.W.

Nat Townsley Jr. and the Lighthouse Ensemble: Sunshine of My Shoulders
Nat Townsley Jr. and the Lighthouse Ensemble: I Know Love
From I Fell In Love With God (Peacock, 1975)

Asked...and ye shall receive.

By popular demand, people wanted to hear the full version of Nat Townsley Jr. and the Lighthouse Ensemble's "Sunshine On My Shoulder" - perhaps one of the last songs you'd ever predict would get a gospel makeover but Townsley Jr. and crew do a marvelous job with drenching this song in suitably sunny joy and verve. This is what I love about gospel soul...despite being a devout agnostic (if not reluctant atheist), I appreciate how gospel aims for the transcendent and ecstatic. After all, if you're trying to commune with God through music, ain't no half steppin'!

That's not to say every gospel soul song works aesthetically but they do tend to aspire towards the big and bold and you can certainly say that about both "Sunshine on My Shoulder," as well as "I Know Love" which is on the B-side of the same album. I can't say I enjoy the entirety of its 6+ minutes but there's that long passage that begins around 2:30 that is this high point you want to stay inside as long as possible.

(Btw, for people who care about this sort of thing - this album had two pressings. The original features a picture of the group standing around. The second pressing, which I see more often, has a green cover with a picture of only Townsley on there. Same tracklisting, just a later pressing. Geeks take note).

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

posted by O.W.

Bennet, Roger, and Josh Kun. And You Shall Know Us By the Trail of Our Vinyl (Crown, 2008)

I should have blogged about this prior to last night, when there was an event and book signing in Santa Monica around the above book but hey, you still have a few days to Hanukkah/Xmas/Kwanzaa to cop this tome.

I should first include the following disclaimer: Josh Kun, one of the co-authors, is one of my mentors and a good friend and I also appear in the book, having contribute a short essay on David Axelrod's The Auction (see below). That conflict-of-interest alert aside, here's some thoughts on this.

Trail of Our Vinyl is a different kind of album cover book. On the surface, it would seem to share much in common with books like Cocinando! or The Book of Hip Hop Cover Art - hundreds of album covers, interspersed with contextual essays. However, the point of divergence comes with the core purpose of the book, revealed in its subtitle: "The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost." This book is all about collective memories as encoded in records and thus the range of themes are sprawling and complex (like memories are). In essence, this is less a book about music than it is a book about Jewish American identity as told through music, and more specifically, made material in the form of LPs and their evocative covers.

Thematically then, the book has a very loose chronological organization but is far more based around particular areas of Jewish-ness, ranging from "Men's Warehouse: The Changing Sartorial Styles of the Great Cantors" to "Go Down Moses: The Music of Black-Jewish Relations" to "The Sound of Suffering: Holocaust, Soviet Jewry, and Martyrdom on Vinyl" to "Stop Singing Our Songs: Non-Jewish Masters of the Jewish Melody."

Each accompanying essay is less about the album covers depicted after and more about discussing slices of Jewish American history and/or cultural/community dynamics, all "documented" by the 400 or so album covers included therein. It's a level of thought and engagement that's considerably more sophisticated - but still quite readable - compared to similar books which tend to be more about chronicling music genres rather than the communities behind them.

However, like many album cover books, there isn't as much discussion about album covers. The artwork is the obvious visual draw but though we get a few in-depth essays about specific albums or artists (such as what I contributed), a lot of these images lack context and that's one thing I personally have always wanted more of - a discussion about how artists (or their labels) choose certain images or styles (this is something, for example, the Blue Note books do better, but again, not really on an LP by LP basis.

The grand thing about our internet age though is that the limitations a book places on that kind of in-depth discussions can be, instead, moved online and indeed, on the Trail of Our Vinyl blog, Bennett and Kun add those deeper anecdotes. (Be sure to check out the interview with Johnny Yune, Koraen American performer of Ose Shalom fame.

As you may guess, my two favorite sections were about cross-cultural adventures in Jewish music, namely the chapters on Black-Jewish relations and "Me Llamo Steinberg: The Jewish Latin Craze." Part of me is just drawn to the long-standing kind of inter-ethnic/racial dialogues that are created through music and certainly, for Jewish American musicians, there is no shortage of examples to point to.

Orchestra Harlow: Horsin' Up
From Presenta A Ismael Miranda (Fania, 1968)

Harvey Averne: You're No Good
From Viva Soul Atlantic, 1968)

David Axelrod: The Auction
From The Auction (Decca, 1972)

We start with the El Judio Maravilloso, the "marvelous jew" Larry Harlow whom I wrote about a few months back. Undoubtedly the most influential Latin artist of Jewish descent in the NY Latin scene of the '60s and '70s, Harlow seemed to be one of those born-again Puerto Ricans who were such a vital part of the Nuyorican Latin scene (you can put Joe Bataan and possibly Jimmy Castor in that same category). "Horsin' Up" seemed like an apt selection given its own cross-cultural references - the song is a boogaloo-ed mash-up between Archie Bell's "Tighten Up" and Cliff Nobles' "The Horse". I should add: this is a strange album too since it was recorded in 1968, right in the middle of Harlow's (reluctant) boogaloo period but Fania didn't release the album until 1972 (go figure).

Apart from Harlow, the other major Jewish artist in the same circles was smooth singing Harvey Averne who found modest success recording for Atlantic, Fania and Averne's own Coco label. Averne's Viva Soul has long been a favorite of mine (and his self-titled LP on Fania is another one for a later post), especially "You're No Good" (which I blogged about way back in 2004) which benefits beautifully from the use of the female back-up singers and Averne's own rich vocals.

Lastly, I included the title song from David Axelrod's The Auction, which, like almost all of Axelrod's 70s albums, was a concept LP. This one was in reference to American slavery (the "auction was not in reference to eBay) and this is what I had to say about it in Trail of Our Vinyl:
    "the slick, funky sound of Adderley's band gives way to the gravely voice of lead Billie Barnum who sings of "young girls...helpless in their shame" while soloist Gwendolyn Owens speaks of "little children sold...while masters traded them for gold." It's a heavy, bleak sentiment - oddly contrasted against Adderley's gliding grooves - but it's also the kind of eclectic and provocative work that Axelrod excelled at."

And since this is a book of album covers, I picked out a few of my favorites:

I went for images that appealed to me visually and/or had an intriguing comment to make on visuals alone. For example, The Immortals album by Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson is very striking for its simple but unambiguous reference of blackface - a popular convention amongst the group of vaudeville singers that included Cantor and Jolson and a practice whose inherent racism was also complicated by its popularity amongst immigrant Europeans.

Speaking of duality, the cover of Two Sides of Pinchik captures the cantor's crossed identities perfectly - one as the religious figure, one as a quasi-pop hopeful. As Kun joked at this week's talk, which identity Pinchik chose came with its own hat.

The Star of David housing a raised fist is the sole image on Rabbi Meir Kahane's minimalist spoken word album, a stark but loaded exercise in saying less with more, design-wise.

Lastly, how can you not like the groovy cover for Israel Hit Parade 2? Party on dude!

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

I'm Always Worried 'Bout the Wrong Thing or Learning to Trust Kanye West
posted by murphyslaw


Kanye West feat. Mr. Hudson: Paranoid
Taken from the album 808s and Heartbreak on GOOD (2008)

Mr Hudson & The Library: Too Late Too Late and Bread & Roses and Ask The DJ and 2x2
Taken from the album Tale Of Two Cities soon-to-be-released on GOOD

I've finally accepted things as they are. It's taken me four albums and nearly five years, but I get it now. Kanye West understands music better than we do.

How else can you explain the fact that every time he drops an album, he sends the whole of the critical world into an existential crisis about "where rap music is" (or drop the "rap" and let's talk about music wholesale); they lambast his cheeky sound, his would-be populist approach, the hubris that he seems to wear just barely under the surface of his Prada. He's out of touch. He's out of his mind. "Kanye's finally gone too far," they say. "This time, he missed."

And then a funny thing happens: two weeks, two months, two years later we're still bumping those very same songs deemed duds by those in the know. Somehow the music doesn't stagnate. Tracks off College Dropout still fill headphones from Tokyo to Toronto. A witty line dropped on Late Registration is still being quoted years after the fact. And perhaps most tellingly of all--the true test of what the masses crave at their most unguarded--DJ's can still invariably pack a dancefloor with at least half a dozen cuts off of any single one of his albums. WHO ELSE DOES THAT?

Now. All that said, one of the things I've always appreciated in particular about Mr. West is that he not only challenges us, but that he challenges himself. How? By nurturing and keeping company with tremendous musical talent. Dude gets the best guest spots in the game--collabos that look like pure gimmick on paper but down the road leave folks scratching their heads for the pure genius of it.

At the level of a Kanye West, I reckon it's not terribly hard to get Jay-Z in the studio to record a verse. Or Madonna. Or Justin Timberlake. The list goes on. (Hell, I think Timbaland actually created a List). And Yeezy could do it, I'm sure. And he'd still sell a grip of records. Every song an all-star affair with the kind of big name artillery that would make Quincy Jones shudder.

But Kanye, for all the critical bellyaching he has engendered by not sticking to a "gameplan", understands something that other superstars these days just don't seem to get: it's not the shine of the name, it's the scope of their talent; it's not about label politics, but the real, intangible chemistry between artists that makes for innovative collaboration. Sure he'll put Lil' Wayne on a track (he's gotta be on every album somewhere, as a rule), but he'll also introduce you to Lupe. He'll tap T-Pain (see Lil' Wayne), but also remind you that Dwele is a serious songwriting force.

Kanye West's music is as much the showcase of an expert recruiter as it is the singular vision of music maven. His work surprises us because he knows how to assemble a team around him whose composite parts--incredibly diverse and rich in talent--measure up to a greater whole than Kanye West.

And talent is the key. He gets the best in the Hip Hop game (the list is long), the best in Dance music (Daft Punk), in Alternative Rock (Coldplay) or, as in his latest effort, pure, unadulterated Pop...

And this, friends, is where Mr. Hudson comes in. I actually stumbled upon this album while living in South Africa last year, where I was starved for music and only had sporadic access to new albums. This was one such disc that really floated my proverbial boat. An unadorned gem; a highly likeable record; a rarity these days.

The London/Birmingham based quintet, Mr Hudson and The Library dropped Tale of Two Cities in March of last year and made some noise in the UK but never really arrived stateside. Maybe it's because the music speaks rather simply for itself, or the band didn't have the flash of something revolutionary(!) in their sound. But of course, that's all set to change...

After co-starring with Kanye on what is in my opinion the absolute standout sleeper track on an album full of standout sleeper tracks and producing or contributing to a handful of others ("Street Lights", "Robocop" and "Say You Will"), the group has now signed to Kanye's GOOD Music and, critics be damned, will likely forge on with General Kanye West leading the charge toward the future of pop music.

"Tale of Two Cities" is a start to finish winner. I had trouble even whittling the selections down to just four or five... but I think you begin to get the idea. Brit-guitar-pop with equal parts catch and class, laid over a hip-hop backbone. Dig deeper and you'll be treated to grimey-remixes and even a few club-friendly dancers.

This is good music. But, of course, Kanye West already knew that.


Saturday, December 06, 2008

posted by O.W.

Jared Boxx, one of the nicest record dudes east of the Mississippi, has just put together an awesome "Soul Santa" podcast mix for Daptone.
    1. Jing Jing A Ling ~ Honey and the Bees (Chess)
    2. Merry Christmas, Baby ~ Otis Redding (Atco)
    3. This Christmas~ Donny Hathaway (Atco)
    4. Stevie Wonder Drop (Motown)
    5. Snowflakes~ Betty Lloyd (Thomas)
    6. What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas? ~ The Emotions (Volt)
    7. The Gift of Giving ~ Bill Withers (Sussex)
    8. Eddie Kendricks drop (Motown)
    9. Soul Santa~ Funk Machine (Creative Funk)
    10. Silent Night Chant~ Rotary Connection (Cadet Concept)
    11. Christmas in Vietnam~ Private Charles Bowen (Rojac)
    12. Let's Make This Christmas mean Something This Year ~ James Brown (King)
    13. Without The One You Love ~ The O'Jays (Neptune)
    14. Gwendolyn Berry (The Sisters Love) Drop
    15. Let's Get It Together This Christmas ~ Harvey Averne Band (Fania)
    16. Gee Whiz, It's Christmas ~ Carla Thomas (Atlantic)
    17. Back Door Santa~ Clarence Carter (Atlantic)
    18. I Wanna Spend Christmas With You ~ Lowell Fulsom (Kent)
    19. Mr. Santa Claus (Bring Me My Baby)~ Nathaniel Mayer (Munster)
    20. It's That Time of the Year ~ The Manhattans (Starfire)
    21. Santa's Got A Bag of Soul ~ The Soul Saints Orch. (Jazzman)
    22. Pull My Sled ~ Raindeer Runners (Soul Fire)
    23. Merry Christmas Baby ~ Charles Brown & Johnny Moore's 3 Blazers (Hollywood)
    24. Smokey Robinson Drop

Tastier than spiked egg nog.

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posted by O.W.

The Delfonics: Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time
Spinners: I'll Be Around
O'Jays: Give the People What They Want
Teddy Pendergrass: Love TKO
All from Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia (Sony, 2008)

'Tis the season for Philly soul. Right now, a series of media forces are all converging around the release of Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia, a new 4-CD boxset which came out in October. Last week, the engineers of the Philly sound, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were on NPR's Fresh Air, talking about their legacy and right now, various PBS stations are carrying a two-part television special (check your local listings; was surprisingly of little help).

Maybe it's because I listen to Philly soul joints quite often and maybe it's because I had started reading John Jackson's exhaustive biography of Philadelphia soul, A House on Fire, but I was surprised to learn this recent attention is unusual. Motown/Detroit and Stax/Memphis have had lavish compilations, books and documentaries showered upon them over recent years but apparently, not so much Philadelphia Int'l Records (PIR), the label founded by Gamble and Huff that would become the prime engine (though not the only one) behind the Philly sound.

Love Train is meant to rectify that - at least partially - and its 71 songs, many of them now familiar to us as soul classics, are meant to remind us of how big an impact PIR has left on the pop music world. Certainly, there's no shortage of incredible hits on here; a few personal favorites would include The Delfonics' masterful sweet soul ballad, "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time," The Spinners' catchy, "I'll Be Around," William Devaughn's summertime cruising classic, "Be Thankful For What You Got", the O-Jay's crackling bit of funk, "Give the People What They Want," Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' magnificently mellow, "Hope That We Can Be Together Soon," and Teddy Pendergrass' monster slow-jam, "Love TKO."

I'll come back to the merits of Love Train as a boxset in a moment but to riff on just the sound of PIR...I always thought Philly soul was almost like a logical progression directly out of the Motown sound, in other words, if you took what Holland-Dozier-Holland was doing circa '66 and imagined what it'd sound like in '71, voila! Gamble-Bell-Huff. It's not that the latter were derivative - or better said, what R&B outfit wasn't influenced by Motown in that era? - but rather, there's something in the clean arrangements and glossy production that reminds me of Motown's style (with a healthy dose of Chicago's multi-harmony vocals sprinkled in). It also doesn't hurt that PIRPhilly producers inherited a few acts from Motown, including the Jackson 5 for a quick spell, but especially the Spinners, who had a solid career with Motown but then blew up even bigger with PIRThom Bell working with them on behalf of Atlantic.

But whatever general stylistic differences may have existed between the two cities, in the 1970s, it's hard to deny that the success of a label like PIR - and I don't just mean in sales - easily rivaled that of the Motown juggernaut. Motown's '70s output really peaked around 1971, the year PIR began recording in earnest and in terms of overall consistency, PIR took a big part of the lead in shaping the sound of soul throughout the rest of the 1970s, especially up through the much maligned disco era.

In capturing the breadth of that sound, Love Train does as good a job as you can ask but at the same time, it is - after all - a greatest hits compilation. As such, it suffers from the same problem as all boxsets of this nature; it's preaching to the choir by serving up the songs you already know. That's not meant to be a harsh criticism - a set like this is a great point to begin with and therefore, a necessary first step - but as a soul fan, I'm more looking forward to a future anthology that goes deeper into other songs beyond the chart-toppers. That's what's happened in recent years with labels like Motown and Stax, where there has been a massive effort to plumb the depths of both to find new material to assemble (on that note, so far, Motown's been killing it, especially with their Cellarful of Motown series, but given Stax some credit for their whimsical, Soulsville Sings Hitsville which compiles Stax artists covering Motown songs).

As I said, I'm hoping Love Train isn't a high-point for exploring the magic that is TSOP; let all this new attention be the starting line for far more explorations in the years to come.

(originally posted to Side Dishes)


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

posted by O.W.

Odetta: Hit or Miss
From Odetta Sings (Polydor, 1970)

Odetta, dies at age 77.

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posted by O.W.

Jim Friedman: Love Makes It Beautiful
From Hungry (JF Records, 197?)

Paul Mitchell Trio: Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight
Paul Mitchell Trio: Now That I Know What Loneliness Is
From Another Way to Feel(Dantes Down the Hatch, 1973)

Spirit: The Other Song
From Son of Spirit (Mercury, 1975)

It's not like I have stacks of records, littering the floor or anything but I don't always organize my records that well and inevitably, that means rediscovering things from my stacks that I had forgotten about. I stumbled back across these three LPs last night while I was getting stuff ready to sell and it reminded me of how nicely random some records can be.

Take the Jim Friedman LP for example - a really obscure (perhaps for good reason) private press jazz album that I last wrote about four years ago (damn, I've been doing this site for a minute - peep the old design!) when I was writing about his song "Aubrey." This is what I had to say about Friedman:
    "one of those anomalous albums by an anomalous artist that is partly why I love records. Friedman's not much of a warbler and elsewhere on this private press release, his singing is rather terrible but on "Aubrey," it all comes together. It's not like his voice magically turns from schlock to Sinatra but I just kind of feel him on this one, you know?"
And indeed, coming back to the album after, well, four years, I dropped the needle on another song, the funky "Love Makes It Beautiful." It's still kind of clunky, he still can't sing but this song has tons of charm and nice musical touches.

The Paul Mitchell Trio LP is another private press jazz LP - Mitchell was the long, long, long-time resident player at Dantes Down the Hatch in Atlanta (alas, he passed in 2000). He recorded in 1966 for Verve and it's rather remarkable that we was able to do so again (this time for Dantes' own label) seven years later, with the same players: Layman Jackson on bass and Allen Murphy on drums.

The A-side starts off well with an instrumental cover of James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" (I am not too proud to admit: I dig this tune - go Taylor!) but for whatever reason, I had never bothered to really listen to the flipside where I discovered that Murphy wasn't just the drummer - he was also the band's vocalist and sings on several of the songs including this great Mitchell-original ballad, "Now That I Know What Loneliness Is." (The arrangement reminds of George Jackson's "Aretha, Sing One For Me" for some reason).

Last but not least, I had this Spirit LP in my "sell" pile only to realize that it wasn't a spare so I put it back in my stacks. "The Other Song" is what you'd want all druggy, psych-influenced rock to sound like - dreamy yet with that hard drum beat anchoring things down. I'm surprised no rappers have flipped this (or have they?) You get a contact high just from listening to it.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

posted by O.W.

Holly Conlan: Ok
From Bird EP (2006)

Anjulie: Day Will Come Soon
From Boom EP (Hear, 2008)

I can't really explain my soft spot for folk-poppy singer/songwriter stuff. My wife's theory is that I listened to too much Sarah McLachlan in my 20s but I don't really hear that connection in either Conlin or Anjulie's songs. Both do, however, remind me a little of Feist (who I like) as well as Sarah Shannon (Velocity Girl) whose 2002 album I was entirely taken with.

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