Reviews

VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'Thank God It's Friday' (Culture Factory)

Thursday, 20 April 2017 11:16 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

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Some movie critics have contended that the 1978 disco-era film, 'Thank God It's Friday' - bankrolled by Neil Bogart's Casablanca company in tandem with the film division of Berry Gordy's Motown empire - is one of the worst movies to ever be associated with the Academy Awards. What got it into the history books was Donna Summer's 'Last Dance,' which picked up a well-deserved  Oscar for Best Song. While the movie - a sprawling disaster starring a young Jeff Goldblum and Debra Winger that I once fell asleep to while watching - is risible, the soundtrack is something else altogether. Originally a double album that included a bonus 12" single by Donna Summer, it's now been resurrected on CD by France's Culture Factory label as a 2-CD set that replicates the original LP's cardboard gatefold sleeve.

The 'Thank God It's Friday' soundtrack album is arguably a more accurate representation of the late-'70s disco scene than the epochal 'Saturday Night Fever' LP. Its elongated mirrorball grooves (there are nineteen tracks in all) with slurping hi-hat figures and lush instrumentation encapsulates the over-the-top hedonism of the era, immersing the listener in a tsunami of platform soul that's like taking a trip in a time machine back to 1978. Disco goddess, Donna Summer, who also stars in a movie whose action revolves around a club called The Zoo, is represented by three cuts, including the aforementioned 'Last Dance.'  She also appears on 'With Your Love,' and producer Giorgio Moroder's  15-minute disco revamp of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's erotic, heavy-breathing classic, 'Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus),' a song that was added to the LP as a bonus 12" (in this Culture Factory reissue it's appended to the end of the second CD).

There are also some super-funky cuts by The Commodores ('Too Hot To Trot') and Cameo ('Find My Way') plus some gems by three golden-throated female vocalists - namely Pattie Brooks ('After Dark'), Thelma Houston (the Hal Davis-helmed 'Love Masterpiece'), and Diana Ross ('Lovin,' Livin,' and Givin''). Male singer/songwriter, Paul Jabara - who wrote 'Last Dance' for Summer - is present on a brace of his own songs: 'Disco Queen' and 'Trapped In A Stairway.' Other highlights come in the shape of 'Take It To The Zoo' by the group Sunshine and the engaging instrumentals, 'Leatherman's Theme,' by the Wright Bros. Flying Machine and the Latin-tinged 'Sevilla Nights' from Santa Esmeralda.

Though the film has understandably been long forgotten, this excellent soundtrack album deserves another life. Now remastered in high-definition, it sounds more vibrant than ever. Time to put your dancing shoes on and get on down.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 April 2017 11:24

 

TEENA MARIE: 'Ooo La La La: The Epic Anthology' (Soul Music Records)

Thursday, 20 April 2017 09:46 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

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Teena Marie's controversial departure from Motown in 1983 resulted in a lawsuit being fired at her from Berry Gordy's company (who didn't want her to leave) for breach of contract. Marie countersued and, against the odds, won her case, beating the corporate machine into submission. It was a landmark case that resulted in a congressional bill being passed that reduced record companies' contract demands.  After that triumph, the Californian singer/songwriter went back to making music and landed at Epic Records where she enjoyed more success than she had at Motown. The undoubted highlight of her time at the Columbia subsidiary came in 1988, when she scored her first and only US R&B #1 with 'Ooo La La La,' the title track of this ace 2-CD/25-track overview of her 7-year Epic tenure.

Whereas her Motown work was organic and featured human rhythm sections with real horns and strings, Marie's Epic work (much of which she wrote, arranged and produced herself) reflected the brave new world of '80s technology - synths, drum machines, and sequencing. As a result, some of the music on this anthology doesn't quite cut the mustard in 2017. It sounds a tad dated and therefore hasn't been able to transcend time in the way that some of her glorious Motown sides have. Even so, this is a fine compilation and without doubt is the best retrospective of her Epic years on the market.

The set mostly comprises Lady Tee's Epic singles - many in their 12" form - but also features key album cuts. CD 1 spotlights the dance-oriented cuts. 'Lovergirl,' her first Top 10 US R&B hit for Epic, still sounds mighty fine, as does the more urgent 'Jammin'.' Both 'Starchild,' and 'Fix It' are heavy slabs of rigid, machine-tooled, techno-funk but cuts like 'Playboy' are better because they use a real rhythm section, which allows subtlety and nuance, two qualities that you couldn't get from '80s drum machines. Even on a fluid dance cut like 'Work It'  the backbeat is too stiff and unwieldy, revealing the limitations of the time's technology. That can't be said for all of the tracks, though, especially on the ballad-focused second CD.  'Ooo La La La' still retains its '80s charm and 'Since Day One' - Teena Marie's sensational collaboration with Soul II Soul's Jazzie B - still grooves. The slow ballads hold up well, too - like 'Out On A Limb,' 'Dear Lover,' and the gorgeous jazz-infused 'Casanova Brown,' which uses a string orchestra, and is arguably the best cut on the entire collection. And who can forget 'Dear Mr. Gaye,' Lady Tee's heartfelt homage to Marvin Gaye, a song she co-wrote with the late Leon Ware.

As an overview of Teena Marie's Epic work, this fine collection can't be beaten though my rating reflects '80s technology getting in the way of some good songs and performances (particularly on CD 1).  

(CW) 3/5

Last Updated on Saturday, 22 April 2017 09:25

 

VARIOUS: Virtue Recording Studio (Tramp)

Wednesday, 19 April 2017 19:28 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altMost soul collectors know how important Philadelphia is/was in soul's evolution; said soul collectors can probably reel off all the big names and labels associated with the City of Brotherly Love, but it's my contention that it's only the really serious Philly soul buffs who'll be able to tell you about the city's Virtue Records. The label and its associated studio were set up in 1962 by Frank Virtue, who joined the crazy music biz after his release from the service in 1947. A talented guitarist, he formed the Virtuoso Trio who later morphed into the Virtues. The band enjoyed a 1958 hit with 'Guitar Boogie Shuffle' and with the profits he set up a studio and label. The studio located at 1618 North Broad Street, was used by Virtue's own artists and by anybody else who could afford $500 to cut their own 45... two songs of your very own which you could either issue yourself or lease to the Virtue label. Amongst the top tunes cut at Virtue's decidedly lo-fi facility are Cliff Nobles' 'The Horse' and Fantastic Johnny C's 'Boogaloo Down Broadway'.

As has become the way with rare labels, Virtue recordings are now eminently collectable and to oblige, Germany's Tramp label has just issued this lovely 21 tracker that collects together an eclectic selection of tunes cut at Virtue.

Because these are Philadelphia recordings, you can be sure that are plenty of sweet soul ballads and dancers that echo the sound of, say, the Intruders in the early/mid 60s. Amongst the best are Gene Faith's 'When My Ship Comes In', the RDM Band's 'Give Up' and The Creations' Take These Memories' which features a typical Philly falsetto lead. In truth, they're a little rougher and readier than the more polished work of Gamble and Huff, but none the worse for that.

The album also features a number of tough funk cuts – things like Bob Marshall's 'Big Ladies Man' while Richard Rome (a name familiar with Philly experts) offers a bizarre instrumental 'Ghost A Go Go' – part soul/jazz, part Northern soul.... very strange but it kind of works. Yes, this fine collection proves what proper Philly collectors know; that there was a whole lot more to Philadelphia soul than the glossy, sweet and smooth oeuvre of Gamble and Huff.

Released on 5th May, this album is absolutely essential for all Philly soul folk!

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 April 2017 19:47

 

VARIOUS: Birth Of Soul; Detroit Edition(Kent)

Wednesday, 05 April 2017 19:00 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altBack in the mid 90s UK reissue specialists Ace/Kent embarked on an ambitious and difficult project. Their compilers and consultants (including at that time pioneering soul commentator, Dave Godin) wanted to track the birth of soul music. Via four compilations, they tried (and by and large succeeded) to pin down the genesis of soul music as it evolved out of R&B, gospel, blues, doo-wop and rock and roll. They also offered a much more specific project ... a CD analysis of how Chicago contributed to the birth of soul. We were told that this was the first of several city specific albums. Well, it's been a while, but the second in that particular series has just been released.

This new 'Birth Of Soul' project offers a 24 track insight into how the Motor City helped shape the sound of proper soul music and at the same time it sets out to show that there was much, much more to Detroit than Berry Gordy's Motown monolith. To make that point the compilers have intentionally ignored Motown product, though the way things were in Detroit in the 50s and 60s (plenty of label jumping and musical moonlighting), there are lots and lots of Motown connections here.

The first track for instance, 'I Cried For My Last Time' from the Sonnettes was written by Thelma Gordy while the tambourine player in the Sonnettes was someone called Norman Whitfield. Then there's the final cut.... The Del Phis' 'Nosey Folk' . Any Motown buff will tell you that the Del Phis were the embryonic Martha and the Vandellas. Both these cuts, by the way, have never been issued before. Other Motown links come via people like Joe Hunter, JJ Barnes, Gino Washington and Popcorn Wylie. And even when the Motown link isn't named it's still there, hovering as it were, on plenty of other stuff. Wanda Williams' 'Come Back To Me', for instance, is a dead ringer for Mary Wells' Motown classic 'The One Who Really Loves You'.

Motown apart, I guess the most famous track on the set is the Donays' 'Devil In His Heart'. famous, of course, because the Beatles covered it.... a tribute to how important soul was in the early days of the beat boom.

Well-known artists on the set include Betty Lavette who here is billed as "Betty Lavett" on her 1963 Atlantic outing 'Here I Am' , Tony "The Entertainer" Clarke on 'It's Easy (another previously unissued track) and the wonderful Barbara Lewis who offers 'Think A Little Sugar', the B side to her career defining 'Hello Stranger'. Don't, though, ignore the featured unknowns... artists like The Volumes, The Pen Etts, Priscilla Page and Harry Reid all played a remarkable and worthwhile role in the birth of the music that we all love... soul.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 April 2017 19:06

 

BECCA STEVENS: 'Regina' (GroundUP)

Friday, 31 March 2017 12:38 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

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As it's barely April, it might seem a tad early - and presumptuous, perhaps - to make a nomination for album of the year, but I've no doubt that by this year's end when we're reflecting on the musical highs of 2017, Becca Stevens' fourth long player, 'Regina,' will be near the top of most music critics' lists. Trying to define the sound and style of this 32-year-old North Carolina song siren is a tough ask given that her music is  both allusive and elusive - there are hints of Joni Mitchell and some palpable Appalachian folk elements in Stevens' musical DNA but listen closely and you'll also hear subtle jazz and soul nuances, a soupcon of pop and even, on this new album, a grandiose hint of '70s prog-rock. These disparate elements coalesce on 'Regina' to create something unclassifiable that on paper, perhaps, shouldn't work - but in practice, somehow, and quite miraculously, Stevens uses a special kind of alchemy to seamlessly bind all her influences together into a unique, beautifully-wrought tapestry of sound, aided by producer Troy Miller, who devised alluring widescreen soundscapes for the singer to act out her narrative.

And what a narrative it is. In essence, 'Regina' explores the psyche of female monarchs - both real and imagined ones -  who function as the main inspiration for what is a good old-fashioned concept album (a staple of rock and pop in the '70s). Thematically, its central conceit might sound too esoteric for some listeners but the music - mostly gorgeous and otherworldly - can be enjoyed for its own sake. Indeed, Stevens could be singing in Mandarin and it would still sound amazing, such is the luminescent beauty of her voice. But this girl possesses a beautiful sound and intellect - a deadly combination - and that's what makes 'Regina' such a stimulating affair. The music - densely layered, with stacked vocals and ethereal backdrops -  seduces the ear but its lyrical content makes it an even more potent force. 

There's so much to appreciate on 'Regina' that it would seem almost churlish to single out individual highlights. Indeed, it's one of those rare albums these days that can listened to from beginning to end without the need for  hitting the skip button. 'Venus,' a thoughtful and alluring ode to the classical world's queen of love, opens the proceedings. With its astral lead vocals and multi-tracked heavenly choir (with Laura Mvula assisting) it sets the sonic tone for the rest of the album. The superb folk-infused 'Lean On' is darker and  more reflective while 'Both Still Here' - propelled by plucked chords from Stevens' mandolin-like charango - has a gorgeous haunting quality.  

In an acute change of style, the dramatic 'Queen Mab' - inspired by the fairy queen mentioned in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet - opens with closely-harmonised vocals that, bizarrely, recall the work of Brit prog-rock behemoth, Yes, during their 'Close To the Edge' phase in the early '70s. But these hypnotic celestial harmonies are juxtaposed by a thumping R&B/hip-hop beat, which certainly makes for  startling contrast. Different, too, and seemingly out of kilter stylistically with the rest of the album, is 'Mercury,' a New Wave-ish rocker that stretches the album's regal conceit to breaking point by being a tribute to Queen's flamboyant frontman, Freddie Mercury (the lyrics are ingeniously drawn from Mercury interview quotes).  But Stevens is at her best on mellower songs, like 'Harbour Hawk,' the delicate 'Ophelia' (another Shakespeare-insired piece) and 'The Muse,' the latter co-written by and featuring ex-Byrd and CSN&Y member, David Crosby. Musical polymath, Jacob Collier, joins Stevens on the album's closer, a delightful, though perhaps slightly incongruous, duet take on Stevie Wonder's 'As,' which rounds off the album by bringing an upbeat note to the proceedings.

It might be premature to hail 'Regina' as a masterpiece, perhaps, but it is undoubtedly a significant, coming-of-age opus from a supremely-talented singer/songwriter who has more than lived up to the promise of her earlier recordings. With the magisterial 'Regina' she's not only set a new benchmark for herself but also raised the bar for other female singers to aspire to. For now, then, she is queen of all she surveys. 

(CW) 4/5

 

 

 

Last Updated on Friday, 31 March 2017 12:58

 

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