Monday, September 08, 2003

Sweet Smoke: How Sweet It Is (Crazy Cajun, 1978)

Peep the picture of these guys - they look like a bunch of reject extras from an episode of "Welcome Back, Kotter", including the token brother they have in the mix. I wasn't sure what to expect from them but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this Texas group mixed it up between some decent, funky rock tunes like "Lady Luck" but the real find is all on the B-side where these guys pull off a bunch of R&B covers including a rocked out version of the Ohio Players' "Fire", Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman"...which I like even though it's nowhere near as soulful as Wonder's original plus a fun flip on Billy Preston's "Nothin' From Nothin'". Most outstanding is their slick, breakbeat laden "I Can Hear You Callin'" (I'm assuming this is a cover of the Three Dog Night song but I don't remember what the OG sounds like). For beat heads, it opens with a nice break and brings back two breakdowns later in the song. Rock on white dudes, rock on.

A.B. Skhy: S/T (MGM, 1969)

More funky white dudes in the mix. This S.F. group was dropping that blues-rock science on this album. A lot of it is fairly standard - it's no surprise that they were contemporaries of the Grateful Dead (their keyboardist Howard Wales did a lot of collabo work with Jerry Garcia). There's some decent summer of love psychedelics, especially on "Of All Sad Words" but the hotness is "Came Back", the only song off this album to make any noise. It's a straight up mod-rock blaster, fierce as hell when it kicks off and Wales wails (get it?) on the organ all over this muthasucka. It slides more into a groove mid-way through but then brings back the heat at the end. More wicked than the Witch of the West.

Harold Johnson: Everybody Loves a Winner (Revue, 1968)

This slick little acoustic soul-jazz album comes from the hands of a 18 year old pianist already on his second album. There's a lot to like on this album - he has really strong arrangements and a great blend of traditional jazz instrumentation with Afro-Latin elements. Parts of the album, especially cuts like "Be Quiet Man" and the super-smooth "Afro Freak" sound like they could have been recorded five years earlier though the inclusion of a cool cover of the Impressions' "We're a Winner" helps pin down the date. The latter is the only outwardly funky song in the mix though most of the other songs are just fantastic examples of Latin-influenced straight-ahead.

Freddie Roulette: Sweet Funky Steel (Janus 1973)

Enticing an idea as a funky steel guitar album may be, only one and a half songs really lived up to the promise. Harvey Mandel produces this album which is a mesh of rock and blues instrumentals. Roullette's steel guitar sound is fetching enough - I like its signature whine - but most of the arrangements don't really live up to the same of "sweet" or "funky". The only one that does is "Million Dollar Feeling" which is a cook, smoky groover and benefits immensely from Victor Conte's bass work. "Alleluia" is an uptempo pacer - not bad, but it's a tad too chaotic. "Cause and Effect" could have been hot too but Don "Sugarcane" Harris' violin ruins the song in my opinion.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

Phil Upchurch: Upchurch (Cadet 1969)

This album, depending on your perspective, either comes at the end of this Chicago guitarist's early career or at the beginning of his mid-career (either way, he was more commercially successful prior and after) but Upchurch is arguably his best soul-jazz album (which probably explains why no one bought it). Charles Stephany produces it and the overall sound is surprisingly a little dense for a guitar-driven album (this is no Wes Montgomery or Grant Green album to be sure) but there's definitely some solid soul and funk influences. On the former side, you could do worse with the angelic "You Wouldn't, You Couldn't Be True" , a super-mellow, sparse track that's mostly just Upchurch and a choral accompaniment, with a dash of flute and slightest shuffle of a drum brush. In comparison, the very next song "Cross Town Traffic" funks it up with a driving blues beat and that aforementioned choral back-up. Reminds me of something that may have been on Bo Diddley's Black Gladiator album only less grindin' and a little more melodic.

Drummer Morris Jennings puts in solid work throughout - he doesn't get any solo moments, but he provides good backbeats throughout. Pianist Donny Hathaway is less heard however, but his organ playing gets more shine on Upchurch's cover of "Spinning Wheel" which ranks among the better versions of that hit. Upchurch's two Hendrix covers though: "Voodoo Chile" and "Midnight Chile" didn't do much for me - too dense for my tastes.

Nina Simone: Live in Europe (Trip 1977)

This album is actually a bootleg of a 1968 Paris concert, previously released under the title of The Great Show Live in Paris from 1975 (this begs the question of what happened to the tapes for the 7 years prior...did they forget about 'em. It's a solid concert session regardless and Simone runs through some great vocal cuts on here, including "Please Read Me", "No Me Guitte Pas" and "Gin House Blues." My tastes run towards the funky "Back Lash [Blues]" which is a politically charged number hitting on all the social turmoil ongoing in the U.S. in the late '60s. She also has a version of "See-Line Woman" on hear which is great - it's such a fantastic song in general and this time, they give the song an even more twisting, Afro-soul twist to's very sparse - just congas, a tambourine and male vocals on back-up - and the simplicity really brings out the chant-like quality of the song.

[Robin] Robert Henkel: Let's Get Squished (Robert Henkel: 1979)

I admit - I picked this up on the strength of the looked nutty (once I get the photos up, you'll see what I mean) and when I flipped it to the back, he had a song on there called "Latin Jam" so I figured - what the hell? What I got was a pleasant surprise - Henkel's a total joker on this album - he has a pretty lousy voice but you get the idea that he knows he does and just plays it up. I mean, this is a guy who wrote a song called "Big Plates" which is half love song, half ode to diner food. Peep:
I ignored my coffee
I ignored my fries
my burger's getting cold
as I gazed into your eyes

For real though, the production is actually pretty good - he definitely has a slight jam band quality to it but for '79, the vibe is still pretty funky. Clean sounding rather than grimy but it bumps thanks to solid bass and guitar work (both of which Henkel handles). The butter joint (if you can call anything on this album butter) is "You're the Only Woman For Me" which kicks off with a simple poppin' bassline, sprinkles in some clavinet and then Ned Hall gets to kick off a slick little back beat. Once Henkel starts singing, the song drifts into tongue-in-cheek mode but this cut reminded a lot of something Lyrics Born might put together. Alas, as for "Latin Jam" - not very Latin, not very jammy.

Postscript: when I did some background research on this LP - not expecting to find anything, as it turns out, Henkel has his own website, though some what strangely, there, his name is Robin but all over the album, he's referred to as Robert. Go figure.

Friday, September 05, 2003

The Conservatives: Who Understands Pt. 1

Chicago soul group (arranged by the Pharoahs) that blends a little doo wop, a little Northern and a lot of heart on this funky soul groover. The A-side is the vocal cooker and it pulses with fantastic energy. Reminds me a little of the Impressions, just a lot dirtier. B-side (Pt. 2) is great too - it strips everything down and is more slinky...plays mostly as an instrumental except for the vocal bridge at the front and back end. What I want to know is whether or not there were any other groups on Ebonic Sound? I did a google on this Chi-town label and the Conservatives were the only group to come up on it!

Scott Bros. Orchestra: A Hunk o' Funk b/w They All Came Back (Toddlin' Town)

Still in Chicago... From what I can surmise, this is the group that recorded with Alvin Cash while he was at Toddlin' Town Records, including on the infamous "Keep On Dancing" 45 that everyone and their mama has post-Brainfreeze. "A Hunk o' Funk" is a lot better than any Alvin Cash 45 I've ever heard on TT however - it begins with a slide whistle, kicks in a little brass overture and then launches into absolute funk burner set off by guitar, that aforementioned horn section, and some solid bass work too. It's just a superb instrumental - I'm surprised this hasn't gotten comped somewhere (or is it?) B-side is ok - it has some moments but overall, the song is a little too brass heavy and it's arranged more like a conventional pop instrumental that you'd hear on a soundtrack as "Car Chase #3".

Odell Brown and the Organizers: The Weight b/w Think About It (Cadet)

This has long been a real favorite of mine ever since DJ Om played it for me years ago. For the life of me, I can't figure out why more kids aren't jocking this - "Think About It" is easily one of the best B-3 Hammond groovers I've ever heard. Unlike organ vamp orgies that you hear elsewhere (including on Brown's other stuff), this is kept pretty mellow in comparison but it still cooks hard. Best of all, the arrangement is just so bright and sunny that it makes you wish everyday could feel as good as this song. I can NEVER get enough of listening to it. This is 7" only - it was never on LP. Cop this - believe me, you won't regret it.

Sugar Pie DeSanto: Git Back (Jasman)

Smokin' female vocal funk on Jim Moore's Jasman Records (of Johnny Talbot fame). I got extra special love for this since it's an Oakland record but DeSanto f*ckin' cooks on this like Julia Child. The track is a rollicking gem - a lot of spicy piano and heavy bass guitar rumbling through and DeSanto is tearing up over it. One of the better female funk tracks I've heard of late. B-side is a straight blues cut.

The Fame Gang: Soul Feud b/w Grits and Gravy (Fame)

This 45 came from the third incarnation of Fame Studio's (i.e. Muscle Shoals) in-house rhythm section including a scorching Junior Lowe on guitar and Clayton Ivey slapping it down on organ. You got here a really nice double-sided instrumental funk cooker. I have a hard time choosing between the two of 'em - "Soul Feud" is a hard-driving funky blues tune, complete with some mean interplay between harmonica and guitar. Slaps down like shot glasses in a drinking contest. Meanwhile, "Grits and Gravy" is a more uptempo organ funk cooker - very soul jazzy in sound, with a touch of Kool and the Gang like flavor too. Like I said, a great double-sided 7". It's just too bad their LP wasn't anywhere near this good.

Eddie Long: It Don't Make Sense But It Sure Sounds Good b/w Did You Ever Dream Lucky (Skye)

Speaking of great double-sided 7"s, this Eddie Long single appars on Cal Tjader, Gabor Szabo and Gary McFarland's rather short-lived NYC imprint, Skye. Side A opens with a cool 4 bar drum break and then winds into a slick, downtempo blues groover that invokes images of long cruises down some city southside in a droptop, easin' into the seam with a gangsta lean. "Did You Ever Dream Lucky" picks up the pace though it's still in the funky blues vein - all twitching guitars, tight rhythm section and just a sprinkle of organ at the beginning. I'm a big fan of the funky blues and this single's been rocking for weeks now in my head.