Reviews

TOWER OF POWER: You Ought To Be Havin’ Fun (SoulMusic Records)

Wednesday, 21 November 2018 12:31 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altTower of Power are a proper soul and funk institution. The Oakland outfit are currently celebrating 50 years in the crazy music biz and their last album – the fulsome 'Soul Side Of Town' ( a #1 Billboard album) was every bit as polished, soulful, funky and rewarding as any of those early classics like 'East Bay Grease' and 'Bump City'. Over their half century existence TOP have had plenty of personnel changes, especially in the vocal department, but marshalled by the twin striker partnership of Emilio Castillo and Stephen "Doc" Kupka, the band have remained true to their core soul and funk values. Though not as complex as tracing TOP's membership, the band's recording history has had its share of twists and turns with the band working for a number of labels. This new 2 CD TOP reissue from SoulMusic Records focuses on the group's tenure with two of those labels – Columbia and Epic.

Tower Of Power were with Columbia between 1976 and 1979 and there they issued three albums – 'Ain't Nothin Stoppin' Us Now', 'We Came To Play' and 'Back On The Streets'. CD 1 of this double pack offers a selection of 19 tracks from those LPs. The second CD contains 16 cuts from the band's 1991-1997 Epic tenure where they cut four albums – 'Monster On A Leash', 'TOP', 'Souled Out' and Rhythm & Business'. Despite the time difference and the use of different producers (Steve Cropper and Richard Evans, for instance, were amongst the producers at Columbia), the overall sound and album format is remarkably consistent... though TOP fans would think that obvious. What you get is a big, brassy, brash soul sound with the musical fare fluctuating between driving funk and sweeter, more melodic material.

There are countless highlights across the 35 tracks and maybe it's an age thing but the sweet soul cuts offer more attraction right now and there's none sweeter than 1976's 'You Ought To Be Havin' Fun' which gives the reissue its overall title. It's one of those great songs that, well, just makes you smile. Little wonder that it was a US Hot 100 hit. Equally gorgeous is the slower 'Am I Fool' – an introspective ballad that, like all TOP slowies, avoids any hint of cloying sentimentality. That clever gambit is maybe summed up in another album winner... 'Bittersweet Soul Music' – exactly what Tower Of Power craft... always have done, still do and, hopefully, will continue to do.

(BB) 4/5

 

ST. PAUL & THE BROKEN BONES: 'Young Sick Camellia' (Columbia)

Sunday, 18 November 2018 12:47 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                       altDebuting in 2014 with the album 'Half The City' on indie label, Single Lock, this Alabama octet were perceived as bright new flag-bearers of the retro-soul movement: young cohorts to veteran performers such as Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, the James Hunter Six, and Charles Bradley. Indeed, their horn-laden R&B sound, fronted by the effusive vocals and charismatic stage presence of Paul Janeway (the sonic lovechild of Otis Redding and Freddie Mercury, perhaps), owed much to Stax and southern soul. But by the time of their second album, 2016's 'Sea Of Noise,' which saw them move to Columbia, the group had risen out of the soul revivalist ghetto and evolved into a band with a wider stylistic palette that saw them add funk, country, pop and orchestral elements to their songs. Now, with 'Young Sick Camellia,' the band have moved on apace again from their old school R&B roots. The fact that the album has been helmed by Jack Splash - whose credits include working with hip-hop auteur Kendrick Lamar, Latin pop princess Christina Aguilera, and R&B goddess Alicia Keys - shows how far they've come from 'Half The City' four years ago. The Hammond B3 has given way to astral synths and an almost psychedelic  approach to soul.

But that doesn't mean that they're now making music that will alienate or leave their original fans behind. The group still know how to groove but there's greater musical sophistication and lyrically, Paul Janeway is delving into subjects well-beyond R&B's traditional parameters of love and romance. The album's title is a case in point. The camellia is the state flower of Alabama but here it becomes a symbol of what Janeway perceives as a malaise of bigotry and myopia that afflicts his home state. In his view, America - the America now presided over by divisive president, Donald Trump - is infected with a sickness. It's a risky venture targeting your own nation but Janeway doesn't pump out empty political slogans but rather has a more poetic and subtle way of expressing himself. On 'Got It Bad' - a thumping disco-style groove - Janeway targets the hypocrisy of some who claim to be religious but wield Christianity as a weapon. "Gun-shaped Bible and a loaded tongue/Jesus ain't the problem but he started it," he sings over a mirrorball backbeat embellished by punchy horns and Chic-style strings.  

For those who don't want to embrace Janeway's socio-political commentary, the music can be appreciated on its own merits. Highlights are numerous and two of its chief standouts are songs that both ingeniously rely on space metaphors to get their point across: the lush meditative beat ballad, 'NASA,' and the uptempo, 'Apollo.' The latter is particularly alluring, with its killer chorus and hints of Al Green in its musical DNA.

'Mr Invisible' is different again; a psychedelic-like lament with trippy instrumentation and a mesmeric rhythm track. The album's final track, 'Bruised Fruit,' doesn't end the album on a high with a rousing finale but rather concludes matters on a solemn, ruminative note. It's a slow, skeletal ballad - initially just naked voice, piano and drums - but gradually builds in intensity and musical drama and features a powerhouse vocal performance from Janeway. "Blood is what I can't escape, harboured in the DNA," he sings, reflecting on a relationship that is broken but which somehow defines him. "You're in me when I bleed, you're in me when I pray," he continues, describing a symbiotic relationship that could be referring to a romantic entanglement, though given the album's theme, one suspects that it might actually reflect Janeway's ambivalent affiliation with Alabama, the state that bore him. It is, then, a song where Janeway acknowledges that he is inextricably bound to a place that he can no longer relate to or identify with. For him that creates conflict and tension, but for us, the listeners, it results in dramatic and compelling music.

On one level, 'Young Sick Camellia' can be perceived as a critique of redneck America and Trump-ism, but for Paul Janeway it goes deeper than that - it's a personal exploration of his soul and psyche, and coming face-to-face with his own roots. Though naturally, perhaps, Janeway gets all the attention, The Broken Bones are not glorified sidemen and are, in fact, crucial in bringing his musical vision vividly to life. On this new album, their growth as musicians mirrors their front man's personal development and they, together with producer Jack Splash, frame Janeway's impassioned vocals with sympathetic sonic backdrops.

Though Alabama's camellia may be withering on the bough, on this evidence, St. Paul & The Broken Bones are positively blooming. Long may they flourish.

Catch them live at London's Roundhouse on Monday 19th November.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Sunday, 18 November 2018 16:00

 

FANTASTIC NEGRITO: 'Please Don't Be Dead' (Blackball Universe/Cooking Vinyl)

Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:19 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                         altFrom gun-toting street hustler to Grammy-winning punk-blues avatar, Fantastic Negrito has led a fascinating and eventful life. He was born Xavier Dphrepaulezz into a devoutly religious family with Somalian ancestry in Massachusetts and then from the age of 12, lived in Oakland, California, where he later became a drug-dealing gang banger on the city's mean streets. Music, though, drew him away from a life of crime and inspired by Prince, he started to sing and write songs. He signed a deal with Interscope in 1993 and released the album 'The X Factor' under the name Xavier three years later. But a devastating car accident in 1999 - in which he almost died and was left in a 3-week coma - put paid to his music career. Or so it seemed. Down but not out, in 2013, Xavier returned in the guise of a flamboyant persona called Fantastic Negrito and released his self-titled debut album a year later. He described his unique sound and style as "black roots music for everyone" but it wasn't until after the release of his second album, 'Last Days Of Oakland,' that Negrito began to find a captive audience for his powerful blues-steeped music. The album won a Grammy and since then the 50-year-old performer - renowned for his incendiary live shows - has been considered "hot" property.

Now, we have Fantastic Negrito's latest album called 'Please Don't Be Dead,'  and interestingly, its title - and artwork - refers to the car accident that almost claimed his life 19 years ago. It's not, though, a vain and empty exercise in narcissism but rather about rebirth, redemption, and not going "gentle into that good night." The album's theme is crystallised in the short piano-led ballad, 'Never Give Up,' an uplifting anthem which embodies the singer/songwriter's never-say-die spirit. Elsewhere, though, the album is feisty and even confrontational. "Knock me down, I will keep fighting," declares a combative Negrito on 'Bullshit Anthem,'  which blends sinewy Prince-like funk (circa 1981) with sanctified gospel cadences.

Negrito's years as a street hustler bring a no-nonsense, straight-talking realism to his music and lyrics. A case in point is 'Plastic Hamburgers,' the explosive, riff-driven blues rocker (with shades of early Led Zeppelin in its DNA)  that opens the album. "American pill will wreck 'n' kill," sings Negrito in a searing indictment of his gun-infested motherland (or should that be "muthaland"?) He also delves into the psychology of evil ('Bad Guy Necessity') and examines discrimination ('Transgender Biscuits') via music that's often strident and steeped in the language of the blues. There are some fine reflective pieces, too, like the introspective 'Dark Windows,' a solemn but gleaming ballad, which shows that Negrito possesses sensitivity as well as plenty of badass attitude.

Xavier Dphrepaulezz's miraculous transformation into Fantastic Negrito offers proof that a near-death experience can sometimes lead to a spiritual rebirth as well as a change of outlook and career direction. On a metaphorical level, 'Please Don't Be Dead' is a plea, perhaps, to other people to embrace life and awaken to a new, more-meaningful reality rather than drift aimlessly along in a zombie-like state where mind-numbing TV and shopping malls rule. Vibrant, life-affirming music. Heed its message.

(CW) 4/5  

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 November 2018 12:03

 

VARIOUS; Stax ’68 A Memphis Story (Craft/Stax/UMC

Tuesday, 13 November 2018 18:45 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

altMemphis' Stax Records holds a very special place in soul history. Motown aside, it's probably the best known and certainly the most influential label of the genre. Founded in 1957 (originally as Satellite) by a part time country fiddler – Jim Stewart and his astute sister Estelle Axton, Stax created a very special sound that defined what has became known as Southern soul. Using one studio and essentially the same musicians behind a cohort of stellar performers, Stax scored hit after hit and grew way beyond the expectations of the original sibling founders.

Stax histories will tell you that 1968 was a pivotal year. The label's biggest star, Otis Redding had perished in a plane crash in '67 and business-wise the label's deal with Atlantic that had helped Stax to flourish was coming to an end and there was certainly an air of uncertainty in and around Soulsville. To add to that uncertainty and doubt, the Southern states were in social ferment and turmoil – heightened by the cruel assassination in '68 of Martin Luther King in a Memphis motel.

Through all this Stax continued to make music in their famed sloping floor studios in the old cinema at 926 East McLemore Ave, Memphis and to allow soul fans and musicologists to focus on this seminal period, Craft Records via UMC have just issued this superb five-disc box set containing all the A- and B-sides of every single released under the Stax banner in 1968. There are a massive 120 tracks here and, of course, they feature all the label's big names -Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, William Bell, The Staple Singers, Sam and Dave et al. Indeed the spirit of Redding hangs over the whole collection. His still magnificent 'Dock Of The Bay' opens proceedings while there are four more Redding cuts alongside the poignant 'Tribute To A King' from William Bell. Anoraks will know too that the collapse of the Atlantic partnership meant that Stax lost Sam and Dave – but not before they cut 'I Thank You' and 'Wrap It Up' – both included.

The collection also offers a plethora of great music from lesser names – people like Linda Lindell, Billy Lee Riley and Shirley Walton and though, maybe second stringers, their contribution to the label's legacy is still important. One of the many unknown gems comes from Philly group The Epsilons. Their 'The Echo' is a thing of harmonic beauty and very different to the classic Stax sound.

The box also has plenty from the various Stax subsidiary labels. All soul fans know about imprints like Volt... but what about Enterprise, Arch and Hip? Hip was the real oddity – specialising in rock, pop and country. Of interest amidst the Hip output is music from Southwest FOB – a psychedelic rock group from Dallas that included England Dan and John Ford Coley in their number. And if you want a real oddity from Hip, try a country version of 'Who's Making Love' from Daaron Lee ... almost unrecognizable from the Johnnie Taylor original (which is also included).

The album packaging matches the beauty and quality of the music. The 5 CDs come packed in mock-up 7" vinyl picture sleeves while there's also a 56-page book with liner notes by Memphis historian Andria Lisle, Stax Records historian Robert Gordon, and renowned producer Steve Greenberg, plus rare and never-before-seen photographs from the Stax archives. 'Stax '68 A Memphis Story' is pretty much unmissable... essential fare for any and every soul fan. Add it to your Christmas wish list right away.

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 November 2018 19:04

 

VARIOUS: Jack Ashford, Just Productions; Volume 2 (Kent)

Tuesday, 06 November 2018 19:09 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altThough born in Philadelphia, vibraphonist/percussionist, Jack Ashford will forever be associated with Detroit... and the Motown label in particular. Originally a jazz man, Ashford came to Motown via a friendship with Marvin Gaye, who got him a spot on the Motortown Revue way back in '62. Jack was then welcomed into the Funk Brothers and went on to play on countless Motown classics. But Jack Ashford was ambitious and in the mid 60s he started producing his own records with Mike Terry. In 1965 he set up Pied Piper productions which licensed music to various labels and after PP folded he started another production company – Just Productions. As he'd done at Pied Piper, Ashford licensed many of his Just Productions productions to other labels but he also created labels of his own... like Sepia, Triple B, Ashford and Awake.

Over the past few years, UK reissue specialists Ace Records have, via their Kent imprint, made available much of Ashford's Pied Piper and Just Productions output and with this new 24 track album, we're told, that's about it ... no more from Ace/Kent on Jack Ashford. But don't be down... be thankful for what they have released on the man and this set in particular offers plenty of mighty fine soul from names that will be familiar with Detroit collectors ... artists like Sandra Richardson, Eddie Parker, Billy Sha-Rae and Lorraine Chandler whose 'Don't Leave Me Baby' is an album highlight.

But it's curmudgeonly to talk of highlights on a compilation of this quality. There's not a dud here and each cut offers something special. Here's a few to whet appetites. We keep coming back to the instrumental version of 'There Can Be A Better Way'. With 'Shades of 'Hold Back The Night', the original vocal take from the Smith Brothers was massive in the golden age of Wigan; here, credited to The New Sound Of Detroit, you can fully appreciate the craft of the Detroit session players and maybe wonder how many Funk Brothers are playing on the track. 'Crying Clown' is another familiar song. It's already won favour via versions by Billy Sha-Rae and Eddie Parker and here we can enjoy a second Parker take on the ballad ... much more intense (vocally and instrumentally) than the previous two versions. And while we're on about familiar songs, what about another version of the Temptations' 'Since I Lost My Baby'? Producer Ashford breathes new life into the song by getting the Perfections to add an introductory monologue to their harmonic interpretation.

Jack Ashford is also present on this collection via couple of vocal tracks... the soft and sweet 'Let Me Take Care Of Your Heart' and the very lively L. A recorded 'This Ain't Just Another Dance Song' which, despite the title, actually is. It's not the kind of music that Ashford had grown up with and after Just Productions ended he went to work with Norman Whitfield on his Whitfield label then he moved to Memphis where he worked in a number of jobs outside music, before re-entering the limelight when the Funk Brothers were "rediscovered" in the 90s.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 November 2018 19:19

 

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