Archive for the ‘soul’ Category

Short Cuts: July Mini-reviews, Part One

Monday, July 14th, 2014

The in-box here at Musoscribe World Headquarters is overflowing once again, thanks in no small part to my focusing on other matters (including my recent move and impending nuptials) in addition to keeping up my reviewing schedule. So here’s the first in another series of shorter-than-usual reviews. All of these albums were worth my time; they may well be worth yours as well. Dig.

Cowboy – Reach for the Sky
I’ve been meaning to cover this one for awhile. A reissue of a 1971 album originally released on Capricorn Records, Reach for the Sky rates notice as one of the label’s first signings; Cowboy got their deal with Phil Walden‘s label on the strength of a strong recommendation from one Duane Allman. The album is mellow, tuneful country rock, but (thankfully) you’re not likely to mistake this north Florida group for The Eagles. Allman associate Johnny Sandlin produced the album in a clean, unadorned, intimate style, and that approach perfectly suits the warm and friendly tunes.

Scott Schinder‘s liner notes tell the story of this modest group, and (unusually for a Real Gone Music release) the lyrics are printed in the booklet. Most of the gentle, harmony-laden tunes are written by (guitarists) Scott Boyer or Tommy Talton, but a couple are composed or co-written by piano/multi-instrumentalist Bill Pillmore, who today happens to live here in Asheville. He’s also my piano tuner; the world certainly is a small place. I saw a vinyl copy of this in a local record store just a couple of weeks ago; I might go snag it and ask for an autograph next time the apartment grand gets a tuning.

Tommy Bolin – Whirlwind
Though he lived until just past his twenty-fifth birthday, Tommy Bolin left behind an impressive body of work. Most notable as the guitarist who (a) took Joe Walsh‘s place in The James Gang and (b) replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, Bolin left behind a recorded legacy shows that his style and ability transcended the hard rock of those bands. He released two solo albums in the 70s, and a long list of posthumous live and compilation discs have been released, mostly since the turn of the 21st century.

His catalog, then, bears some similarities to that of Jimi Hendrix: seemingly there’s a push to release every note the man every committed to tape. That said, the quality of the new 2CD set Whirlwind is impressive and consistent. The eighteen tracks on this collection run the gamut from unfinished demo recordings to polished, why-wasn’t-this-released quality. The sequencing is seemingly haphazard, jumping around the various phases of Bolin’s career., but that won’t diminish the enjoyment of the set. Some of the music is meat’n'potatoes rock; some of it is much more ambitious. What most all tracks share is lead guitar work that manages to be both tasteful and flashy. The styles run from fusion to hard rock to gentle acoustic work, with some exploratory jamming tossed in for good measure. Every track here is either a Bolin composition or a Bolin co-write; the man clearly had ideas and energy to burn. An embryonic version of what would become “Marching Powder” on Bolin’s 1975 Teaser LP takes up a big chunk of the second disc; the 26-minute version on Whirlwind (titled “Marching Bag”) is a highlight, and will likely please fans of Hendrix’s later work, which it (in places) recalls. Keen listeners might hear shades of Jeff Beck in there, too, but in the end Bolin was a true original.

The Dramatics – Greatest Slow Jams
Best remembered for their hits “In the Rain,” Hey you, Get Off My Mountain” and “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get” (the first two of which are included on this new compilation), The Stax-Volt soul group’s main stock in trade was what we now (and for awhile now, really) call slow jams. This thematic collection was put together by late-night radio host Kevin “Slow Jammin” James – but of course it was – and may well serve as the soundtrack to your next 70s-themed evening of makin’ love.

The production and arranging on these twelve tracks are smooth and stellar; the Detroit band’s tight harmony is expertly backed by top-notch instrumentation. The band’s arrangers had a keen sense of the value of quiet; on numbers like the supremely melodramatic “In the Rain,” the audio shade and light take a relatively straightforward tune and make it into one for the ages.

Those looking for detailed information about the group and their music are advised to look elsewhere; the compiler of Greatest Slow Jams figures that (unlike me) you probably won’t be sitting around scanning the booklet while these tunes are spinning. Get busy, and enjoy. Greatest Slow Jams may only showcase one side of the Dramatics’ abilities, but it’s a damn fine side.

More “short cuts” to come.

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Album Review: The “5″ Royales – Soul & Swagger

Monday, June 16th, 2014

There are a select few acts in musical history that didn’t sell a ton of records, yet exerted influence far beyond what their chart action might suggest. Among the most celebrated examples are The Velvet Underground and Big Star. Both groups have had said about them – apocryphally or otherwise – that they sold few records, but that everyone who bought one went out and formed a band.

That short list should also include The “5” Royales (the quote marks are part of the name). Though their notoriety is largely confirmed to blues and r&b enthusiasts, the group can count among their fans no less than Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MG’s fame, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and Jimmie Vaughan. The “5” Royales’ specialty was a bluesy, often gospel-infused vocal style not miles removed from The Platters, Drifters and Coasters. But in addition to some excellent, soulful close harmony work, the band had within its ranks a secret weapon: guitarist Lowman Pauling. His direct, compact and effective leads were an integral part of the group’s sound.

A new 5CD set (naturally, there are five!) collects all of The Winston-Salem NC-based group’s material, from their earliest 78s in their 1951 gospel phase (when they were known as The Royal Sons Quintet) through their later material. The group’s unique sound was a synthesis of blues, early rock’n'roll, doo-wop, rhythm and blues and what would later be known as soul.

The new set (on Rock Beat Records) titled Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales 1951-1967 is lavishly packaged in a sturdy hardcover book roughly the size of a stack of 45rpm singles; that’s fitting, as The “5” Royales existed in an era when the single was king, when album-length releases weren’t yet the standard. A detailed and deeply researched history and discography includes details including personnel on each track, release date and matrix number.

The set is strewn with gems; The “5” Royales were so versatile and accomplished that each listener will likely have his or her own favorite tracks. The blues-based “Thirty Second Lover” (from 1957) is as good as anything that came out that year; it sounds a bit like The Dixie Hummingbirds backed by Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana and Bill Black. Pauling tears up the fretboard on “Say It,” and their version of “Dedicated to the One I Love” is miles away from the Mamas & the Papas version.

Some of the material features saxophone (in those days, as often as not, sax – not guitar – was the lead instrument of choice for r&b sides), and swings in a manner a few steps advanced from – but not wholly unlike – Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five. A bit of gritty guitar distortion crops in from time to time, but it’s nicely balanced by the soul-stirring close harmony work of the group.

As noted above, The “5” Royales were a singles outfit. They did cut a few albums of material, but not until the CD era did any sort of thoughtful compilation of their best work appear. But now in 2014, no less than two compilations have been released. A 2CD set called The Definitive “5” Royales: Home of the Blues & Beyond is a good and thoughtful survey. But the Rock Beat set includes all of the material the group released 1951-1967, liberally sprinkled with rare, unreleased and alternate takes. And if you’re gonna dive into the work of The “5” Royales, you ought to do it right. Thanks to its comprehensive nature and the care with which is was assembled (a few early sides excepted, the sound quality is stellar), Soul & Swagger: The Complete “5” Royales is the one to buy.

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Album Review: Bobby Rush — Decisions

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

An authentic blues album is a rare thing in 2014. Maybe it’s a function of modern recording techniques; I don’t know the reason. But most attempts at capturing the blues in the context of a recording session end up feeling and sounding sterile and lifeless, rote and unimaginative.

The good news is that the current state of blues releases has the effect of shining a brighter light on those albums that truly do rise above. And that’s the case with Decisions, the new CD+DVD release from Bobby Rush. Ably backed by the seasoned party band Blinddog Smokin’ (Chicago Chuck Gullens on drums, bassist Roland Pritzker, Mo Beeks on keyboards, guitarist Robert “Chalo” Ortiz, and vocalist Carl Gustafson out front) plus assorted studio cats on additional guitars, saxophones and whatnot, Rush delivers his soulful vocals in a style that laid back enough to convey the I-got-this attitude without breaking a sweat.

Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack) shares lead vocal duties with Rush on one tune, the album opener “Another Murder in New Orleans.” And while the album packaging makes a bit too much of this single-track collaboration (“Featuring the Legendary Dr. John” is emblazoned on the cover artwork, and a great photo of the duo serves as the booklet’s cover), the tune will leave listeners wanting more from these two grizzled veterans of music.

In fact, the Gustafson-penned “Another Murder in New Orleans” fits smoothly into the sonic space of the album overall. Rush composed five of the album’s ten tracks, including the smoky title song. And he has a sympathetic foil in Gustafson, the writer (either solo or with others) of Decisions‘ other tracks. Gustafson included two numbers written to be autobiographical (sic) tunes, and their titles make clear their subjects: “Bobby Rush’s Bus” purports to tell the story of “nineteen years on the road” with Rush, and an announcer lets us know who’s taking each of the four solos. And the wry and comical “Dr. Rush” casts Bobby as a radio call-in advice resource.

In fact, nearly all of the tracks on Decisions aim for a slice-of Bobby’s-life vibe, and those slices are upbeat and grin-inducing. “Too Much Weekend” tells the story of the Monday-morning effects of a weekend of over-stimulation. Full of stabbing horn chart work, “Funky Old Man” implores the listener to do a new dance called the “Fred Sanford.”

Elsewhere, “Love of a Woman” mines well-worn lyrical territory familiar to any blues fan, and “If That’s the Way You Like It I Like It” is sung in the voice of a man who will seemingly put up with anything to keep his woman. And “Stand Back” folds in some Cuban salsa elements, answering the unasked question: What would Santana‘s “Smooth” sound like with Bobby Rush out front instead of that Matchbox 20 guy?

The included DVD features a video for “Another Murder in New Orleans” featuring Rush onstage with the band at One Eyed Jack’s, with Dr. John on piano and vocal. Some clever, highly stylized animation and handheld street-scenes camera work, adds interest, though the black-and-white narrative sections are perhaps a bit too literal. But overall, it’s an exceedingly well done clip. A brief interview of sorts with Dr. John is interesting, but the intercut footage of Rush sitting on a stool in the studio doing some solo blues with only his voice and harmonic is worth seeing.

Rush’s previous album — 2013′s Down in Louisiana – earned a Blues Music Award for “Soul Blues Album of the Year,” and since Decisions is every bit as good, it will be worth watching to see if this new album gets similar notices.

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Capsule Reviews: Still More from Real Gone Music

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Wrapping up the series (for now, at least), here’s the last of four entries presenting short looks at recently-released reissues and/or compilations from Real Gone Music.


Vanilla Fudge – The Complete ATCO Singles
Most rock fans with any sort of memory are familiar with Vanilla Fudge, and they know the band’s deceptively simple approach to interpreting the songs of others: up the melodrama quotient, and in equal measure, slow down the tempo. Sometimes it worked very well on both commercial and creative levels: the band’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is a stone classic (and there ain’t nuthin’ I can do about it). The approach generally lent itself best to longer workouts, like “Shotgun,” where ideas (such as they existed) had a chance to unfold. Within the context of the much briefer single, sometimes the power was lost (as far as subtlety, there was precious little of that to lose). As a result, the single edit of the Supremes cover is very good, but not great like the longer edit.

Other times, the approach feels overwrought, even within the confines of a (two-sided, two-part) single, such as the “Fudge-ized” (their term; I prefer “Fudge-ified”) reading of Donovan‘s “Season of the Witch.” Some gems do exist on this collection of all the band’s 45s: while it doesn’t best the original Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra duet/weirdathon, “Some Velvet Morning” is suitably over the top. A couple tracks from the band’s 80s reformation try to update the Fudge sound for the MTV era. Hint: it didn’t work. Verdict: good, but listeners are better served by picking up the first album.


Eddie Kendricks – Love Keys
It must be said that reissuing this album is a curious move. Though Eddie Kendricks achieved great fame as a lead vocalist in The Temptations, and enjoyed some hits during his string of nine solo LPs on Motown, once he left Berry Gordy‘s label, he stopped having hits. More troubling was the fact that his voice was largely shot, thanks to a lifelong chain smoking habit that would eventually result in the lung cancer that would end his life. Love Keys was the sole album Kendricks cut for Atlantic, and it neither charted nor yielded a hit single. Moreover, it’s a significant departure from the style of his earlier efforts.

But it does remain the final full-length from the man who gave us so many hits, so for that reason alone it deserves a hearing. This Muscle Shoals-flavored album heads in a southern soul direction, but the arrangement and production scream “1981,” and from where I’m sitting, that’s rarely a good thing. Still, any Kendricks is worthwhile, so if you can listen past the cheesy synth lines and discofied beats that crisscross perfectly good Muscle Shoals horn charts, Love Keys is…okay.


The Ohio Express – Beg, Borrow & Steal: The Complete Cameo Recordings
When most people hear this band’s name, they immediately think of the whole Kasenetz/Katz bubblegum scene. But this here is an actual album, not a collection of singles. And it’s from the period when The Ohio Express aimed for what we’d nowadays term a garage rock sound, not a bubblegum one. Once the railway sound effects subside, the title track – a tune that shamelessly rips off at least three other songs I can think of offhand – sets the tone for most of the rest of the disc. To call the album faceless is unfair, but the fact that two completely different bands (with only slight personnel overlap) contributed to it isn’t all that sonically obvious.

Nearly every song on Beg, Borrow and Steal sounds like another song: “Had to Be Me” is a ringer for The Choir‘s “It’s Cold Outside,” and “Let Go” is a thin rewrite of “Hi Ho Silver.” This all leads one to wonder snarkily if the record’s title doesn’t identify it as some sort of concept album. Still, originality wasn’t the goal; fun and commercial success was. Overall, though, the long-out-of-print Beg, Borrow & Steal documents the band’s early guise(s), and is a worthwhile purchase for fans of the genre.

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Capsule Reviews: And Yet Three More from Real Gone Music

Monday, June 9th, 2014

Here’s the third of four collections of brief reviews of recently-released reissues and/or compilations from Real Gone Music.

Dr. John, The Night Tripper – GRIS-gris
Dr. John (aka Mac Rebbenack) was a well-known fixture on the New Orleans music scene long before he cut this, his debut album in 1968. And while he’d later enjoy commercial success with his 1973 single, “Right Place Wrong Time,” this album makes no concessions to the marketplace. As Richie Unterberger‘s liner notes mention, Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun is reputed to have asked, “How can we market this boogaloo crap?” It’s a weird, spooky gumbo of cajun, voodoo, jazz and funk styles, all filtered through a thick, (hard-) druggy haze. The audio quality on some tracks – notably “Danse Kalinda Ba Doom” makes it sound as if the mics were all in the next room over from the musicians (who sound as if they’re dancing over a cauldron while playing).

Definitely weird stuff and not for the faint of heart, GRIS-gris is nonetheless a historically important musical document. For a bit of fun, compare Dr. John’s reading of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters” (sic) with the one cut live by Humble Pie. If you’re open to the sonic equivalent of a bad trip sprinkled liberally with Louisiana hot sauce, this is the ticket.

Irma Thomas – Full Time Woman: The Lost Cotillion Album
Speaking of New Orleans, here’s a previously unreleased cache of recordings from the vocalist known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.” Irma Thomas had cut a pair of albums for Imperial in the mid 1960s, and even earlier (1960) enjoyed a brief chart presence with “(You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess With My Man.” And in the early part of the 70s, she was signed to Atlantic associated label Cotillion, for whom she cut fifteen songs. Only two were released: “Full Time Woman” and its b-side, “She’s Taken My Part.” For reasons that seemed to have to do with changing popular tastes, none of the other material was ever released.

But once again, Real Gone Music comes to rescue, and the results are quality stuff, very much in line with what Aretha Franklin was doing in those days. David Nathan‘s liner notes tell the story in rich detail.

Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles – The Complete Atlantic Sides Plus
If you like your r&b female vocal a little gritter and soulful than The Supremes, then if you don’t already know about Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles, you owe it to yourself to check out this comprehensive set. Acts like The Bluebelles were always focused more on singles than album-length releases, so with this collection – forty tracks including all the single releases the group had on Atlantic, plus some other scattered gems including several previously-unreleased cuts – listeners get a good overview of what they were all about.

Despite their efforts, not a single one of these tunes (other than “All Or Nothing” b/w “Over the Rainbow”) dented the pop charts. Of course once they’d altered their approach and shortened their name to Labelle, they’d hit it big with 1974′s “Lady Marmalade.” But these earlier sides – dating 1965 to 1969 – are quite good and have sadly been long overlooked.

Still more on the way.

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Capsule Reviews: Three from Real Gone Music

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Because there’s so much of a backlog here at Musoscribe’s palatial new World HQ ( I moved recently), here’s the first of at least three collections of short reviews. These are all reissues or compilations on the Real Gone Music label, renowned (along with Rock Beat, Omnivore, Numero and a select few others) for their thoughtful archiving/crate-digging approach to music releases.

Samuel Jonathan Johnson – My Music
The second you see the cover art and typography, you know that this is a late-seventies major-label r&b release. And when the needle drops (or the disc spins) and you hear those smooth string machines and funk-poppin’ bass lines – not to mention the female chorus’ intro of “Music…music” – there’s no doubt you’re in smoove r&b land. But as the style goes, this lone release (the reissue’s liner notes, penned by Johnson’s daughter Yolanda Johnson explain why there was never a follow-up) is pretty fine.

Lots of interesting keyboard textures throughout, too. Nine of the ten tracks are originals, and the sole cover (a highly orchestrated reading of Bacharach/David‘s “What the World Needs Now is Love”) is super-slow in an Isaac Hayes mode. “Sweet Love” – more or less an extended coda to that cover – ups the funk factor.

Bettye Swann – The Complete Atlantic Recordings
Another in the line of where’d-they-go recording artists, Swann began the process of dropping off the pop culture radar screen after signing with Atlantic Records. She had previously scored some hits on Money and then Capitol – releasing three albums – but for whatever reason, once she went with the mighty Atlantic, the hits stopped coming. The quality of her music certainly flies in the face of her lack of chart success: the Atlantic tracks are strong, and typical of the tastefully arranged, Supremes-influenced soul of the era. Five singles reached the lower rungs of the r&b charts, but beyond those, most of the music as collected here went largely unheard on its initial release.

Swann subsequently left the music business and became a Jehovah’s Witness (when the latter occurs, the former often accompanies, as Witnesses are encouraged not to call attention to themselves…except when…y’know). Five tracks cut in Nashville in the mid 70s that never got released are included, and they’re as good as anything else on this fine collection of previously overlooked music. Especially recommended is Swann’s funked-up reading of Elvis‘ hit “Suspicious Minds.” Charles Waring‘s excellent liners tell Swann’s story in engaging detail.

Smith – A Group Called Smith / Minus-Plus
This band’s reading of the classic “Baby It’s You” was a monster hit in 1969, and big things were predicted for the future of the group fronted by powerful, expressive vocalist Gayle McCormick. The group’s first album included that single (arranged by Del Shannon) and featured nine other cuts that showcased the instrumental prowess of the band as well as McCormick’s Janis Joplin-styled pipes. She wasn’t the only lead vocalist in the group, though: when Rich Cliburn or Jerry Carter took the lead, Smith sounded in places a bit like The Band fronted by Three Dog Night, and in other places like Jefferson Airplane.

Inspired covers (“Tell Him No” [sic], “Who Do You Love?” I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” “The Last Time,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together”) completely reinvent familiar songs as the band makes them their own. For the group’s second album (both are included on RGM’s single-disc reissue) the band relied more upon original compositions, and both of the first album’s male singers had left. Greater reliance on horn charts makes Minus-Plus a little less special than the debut, and the record has more of a session-musician feel to it, but it’s still quite enjoyable. Richie Unterberger‘s brief liner notes provide some history and context.

More capsule reviews in the next installment.

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Album Review: Dave Keller — Soul Changes

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Preconceptions can be a dangerous thing. When I read the advances of Dave Keller‘s Soul Changes, I made the assumption that Keller would be the latest vocalist in a Memphis-flavored retro bag. And while he is in fact that, he’s much more. Taking nothing away from the fine singers who don’t play an instrument onstage – Charles Bradley comes to mind – Keller offers a bit more on Soul Changes. Yes, he sings in a searing, soulful style, but he also rips it up on bluesy electric guitar.

With stellar backing on the first half of the album by the Hi Rhythm Section plus Stax veterans Bobby Manuel (guitar) and Lester Snell (keyboards), Keller turns in performances that compare favorably to Boz Scaggs‘ self-titled 1969 Muscle Shoals foray. And the second half of the disc (cut in Brooklyn) features backing by The Revelations, an NYC band who truly get the whole soul vibe. The songs on Soul Changes deal with the dissolution of Keller’s marriage (“17 Years,” for example) and he successfully channels pain and despair into a album that’s visceral and emotionally charged throughout. The album was nominated for a 2014 Blues Music Award. Recommended.

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Album Review: David Ruffin – My Whole World Ended / Feelin’ Good

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Sure, everybody knows The Temptations, and their many hits, including “My Girl,” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” both featuring lead vocals of David Ruffin. But fewer – especially those who followed the pop charts rather than the R&B one – are familiar with Ruffin’s solo work. This set pairs Ruffin’s first two albums (both 1969) in his (first) post-Temptations period. The vocals are peerless. The arrangement and playing on these sides is first-rate: all of the elements that made Temptations singles tunes for the ages are present one these records as well.

While My Whole World Ended is a near-concept album in its depictions of hurt and loss, Ruffin’s expressive vocal work brightens the often downbeat lyrics. His reading of “Everlasting Love” is arguably the best-ever version. Feelin’ Good is, as its title suggests, a bit more hopeful, and is very nearly as good. If you love the Temptations, you’ll love these (inexplicably) long unavailable albums. Kudos to Real Gone Music for rescuing these classics. (Another new RGM twofer pairs 1973′s David Ruffin and Me ‘N Rock ‘N Roll Are Here to Stay from 1974. It’s also good, but if you must chose one, pick this.)

Note: Due to an unusually full schedule this week and next – you wouldn’t believe me if I told you – my posts will be a bit shorter than typical. Once the dust settles, my normal wordy posting will recommence.

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Album Review: Tower of Power — Hipper Than Hip

Monday, April 7th, 2014

For quite a number of years – primarily the mid 90s to around 2006 – I was immersed in a consuming hobby of sorts: I collected and traded bootlegs (aka ROIOs or recordings of indeterminate origin). For me, listening to unreleased recordings of artists I like – studio outtakes, live concert tapes, radio broadcasts and the like – provided an additional window of understanding into their work, a depth of understanding often unavailable through more conventional means.

With the rise of faster internet speeds and peer-to-peer sites, the trading of physical artifacts has largely died off. In the same way that trading of those physical CDs put a practical end to the for-profit (and illegal and unethical) practice of commercial bootlegging, the end of trading came on suddenly.

But a desire for these kinds of recordings persists. And just when one thinks the unreleased cache has been completely mined, something new turns up. The latest example of this is Hipper Than Hip: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Tower of Power. This 2CD set documents a WLIR radio broadcast from Long Island’s Ultrasonic Recording Studios on May 14, 1974. While Real Gone Music focuses primarily on rare and archival reissues, Hipper Than Hip is two-plus hours of previously unreleased material.

Tower of Power was (and remains) an eleven-piece band to be reckoned with. They brought the energy and fire of funk by expanding the basic rock lineup (guitar, bass, drums) with keyboards, percussion and a horn section. With Lenny Williams fronting the band on vocals, TOP tore through their tunes, giving ample spotlights to soloists. Chester Thompson‘s keyboard work is the centerpiece of many of these tracks, often engaging in incendiary dialogue with the horns (trumpet, two tenor saxes and a baritone sax).

Recorded in the studio but with a live audience, the recording is the best of both worlds: high quality recording techniques and the energy that can only be captured when the band plays in front of real human beings. The 2CD set captures the band at the height of their success, running through their hits (“Soul Vaccination,” “You’re Still a Young Man,” and “What is Hip” along with perennial favorite “Squib Cakes”) and a dozen others.

Led by founders Emilio Castillo and Stephen “Doc” Kupka (both of whom remain in the band today, along with a couple others from back in the 70s), Tower of Power provided a sort of updating of the hard-charging road bands of the swing era (Duke Ellington‘s band, for example), injecting the music with heavy doses of soul, r&b and the ever-present funk.

From start to finish, Hipper Than Hip is a thrilling document of a band and horn section at their best. Whether it’s a smooth soul ballad such as “You’re Still a Young Man” or an irresistible groove, Tower of Power delivers. The liner notes provide a bit of history and context along with some background on the sessions that produced this historic recording. As successful as the studio albums of that era were (1974′s Back to Oakland was the group’s then-current release), it was in concert that Tower of Power were best experienced. And while they did release a live album in the 70s (1976′s Live and Living Color) that contains versions of four of the numbers on Hipper Than Hip, this new 2CD set is worth having for its combination of up-close-and-personal with studio production values.

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Album Review: Barry White — Can’t Get Enough

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

James Brown might have been Soul Brother Number One, but it was Isaac Hayes who brought soul into the mainstream with his lush, romantic workouts such as his cover of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” And while Hayes would remain the master of that style, he had other things on his mind as well, such as the driving soundtracks to Shaft, Truck Turner and other flicks of the era.

But in the 1970s we had Barry White to carry the torch of that particular sub-style. Rock fans might even think of White as a sort of ELO to Isaac Hayes’ Beatles: he took one specific part of a great act’s musical approach and ran with it.

Some say he ran it into the ground. But with the benefit of hindsight, and if approaching it while attempting to keep irony at a safe distance, it’s actually a lot of fun. Can’t Get Enough was White’s third album, but he had been successful right out the gate with his first two solo LPs: I’ve Got So Much to Give and Stone Gon’ (both 1973) hit #1 on the US R&B charts, and top-twentied on the pop charts. Still, Can’t Get Enough was the crowning achievement: number one on both charts, and certified Gold in both the USA and UK.

The album is characterized by a mix of lush songs – often including his lugubrious Isaac Hayes-inspired raps – that were in turns heavily orchestrated and filled with propulsive, proto-disco beats. “Mellow Mood (Pt. 1)” is such an orchestrated number that segues quickly into the #1 dancefloor hit “You’re the First, The Last, My Everything.” But most of Side One is consumed by the slow jam “I Can’t Believe You Love Me,” a prototype of 70s makeout music that features equal parts low-register rapping (the old kind, kids) and equally-low-register romantic crooning. A studio full of strings, harpsichords, Rhodes, female choruses and a slowed-to-the-breaking-point drum part all come together to make this signature track.

The sort-of title track, “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Baby” topped the pop and R&B charts, and deservedly so. With the drums mixed way out front (right up there with the orchestra and ol’ Barry’s multi-tracked voice), it was made for dancing. And the production and arrangement are impressive and crystalline. “Oh Love, Well We Finally Made It” has a memorable sax riff, but otherwise it tends – at least when compared to the other tracks on Can’t Get Enough – to come off a bit faceless.

“I Love You More Than Anything (In This World Girl)” features a stronger melody, and strikes a balance between slow jam and disco territories; it probably works best as a slow dance number, conjuring as it does visions of glittery disco balls. The brief “”Mellow Mood (Pt. II)” wraps up the disco with a repeating riff of strings and wah-wah guitar while imaginary credits roll.

When White was ruling the charts, this ten-year-old Billy had no use for his romantic notions and discofied beats. When I was a teen and bought my first of several copies of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, I laughed aloud when I read part of Dave Marsh‘s review of White’s side-project Love Unlimited Orchestra: “And Barry White is (you know, baby) pretty (uh-huh) goddamn lame.” But hearing Can’t Get Enough some forty years after its original release – on 180-gram Audio Fidelity vinyl, I must hasten to add), it’s some pretty fine music, well worth reconsideration. This 2014 reissue comes in numbered editions housed in a sturdy gatefold sleeve; like the ’74 original, it includes all of the (yeah, baby) lyrics so you can (uh-huh) sing along.

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