Tuesday, June 30, 2009

posted by O.W.

(Editor's note: That whole "I'm done with MJ posts"? Ok, so that was premature. Sorry but the hits just keep on coming! This is from James Cavicchia, my favorite "music writer who is not professionally a music writer but better than many music writers who are" and a message board post he is allowing me to reprint. --O.W.)

The Jackson 5: I Want You Back
From Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (Motown, 1969)
    "When I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever been fully convinced by Michael Jackson, really. Not convinced by the squeaky-clean pre-teen singing about women troubles in every other song, not convinced by the timid good-timer of Off The Wall (though I always think of Michael dancing, I never ever think of him dancing with anyone—do you?), not convinced by the cuddly werewolf/virginal baby-daddy/china-fine gang-war mediator of Thriller, and on and on. He was never convincingly girl-weary as a young boy, and never convincingly romantic, aggressive, or sexual as an adult. He always seemed to be just outside of the real action. And while this made me feel very affectionate toward him—he was so clearly a kid, one of us, who had somehow fooled the right people and infiltrated the adult world—none of his music ever seemed to have any real place in any reality that I was familiar with. I managed to grow up loving his music without it actually meaning anything to me; it felt huge and important, but weightless. Like cartoons.

    I know that sounds pretty negative, but what it actually ends up meaning is that Michael Jackson’s music works on me with a purity matched by few. Because for all the levels on which it may be suspect—lyrics, persona, whatever—there is one level on which it always always convinces: the sound. Three certainties in life: You will definitely die, you will always pay taxes, and you will never ever say “Man, that Michael Jackson song doesn’t sound as good as I remember.” It will only ever sound better, I promise you. Whatever suspension of disbelief the songs may require, and however little connection they may have to anything outside their own miniature fantasias, their reign within the borders of their runtime is absolute. They are unalloyed pop-music-production genius galvanized by Michael’s voice, which is not always the most integral piece, but is always, finally, the most necessary one. At the same time their immense commercial success keeps them present and current within culture, their essential unreality and inhuman inner perfection allow them to operate outside of time. They often seem less like actual songs and more like ideas that we’re all having at the same time. To hear them is to think, “Well, yeah—of course.”

    And “I Want You Back” is the best Michael Jackson song. It’s not quite my favorite (“The Love You Save” narrowly edges it), but it’s the best, and is one of what I usually consider to be the two archetypal Perfect Pop Songs. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot (I know, right?): The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” divide the world between them—there is no third.

    It starts with that piano curlicue that doubles back on itself before it’s even gone and tagging the guitar at the turn, the two together sounding like they could flip the entire sun like a fucking flapjack. Then the strings come in and then the bongos and then and then and then, and it’s not harmonious, exactly—there’s crisp separation between each instrument, and everything’s in its own space, but the sheer mass of all the pieces gives it this beautiful kind of overfull clatter. There’s a quick sense that not only could there not possibly be anything better, there couldn’t possibly be anything else. Mike glides down in full whine, and from here on out the song stubbornly defies momentum—it stays stopping and starting, the drums jump in place (only on the choruses, though—no drums at all on the verses), and it’s the most glorious parade in the world, too generous, and stopping at every house. It should annoy, but the thing is that after every single stop, it somehow manages—incredibly—to sound even better when it starts back up. You don’t think it will, but it does, every single time. By the end, hearts and ears bulge at the seams from the undiminished return.

    And although the song never puts across the sense of loss that you’d assume from the title, it’s okay, because it’s not really trying to. The amiable bass and the daylight guitar and that plinky piano that get sprinkled in seem to understand Michael in a way that Michael doesn’t understand the song (and probably couldn't, at his age): Despite the literal desperation of the lyrics, and even though he works overtime to sell us on it, it’s clear from Michael’s perfect, explosive vocal that he does not believe even for an instant that it won’t all work out, and the genius of the music is that it recognizes that this—the faith and the gold of youth—is the point of the song, not some girl, some…other. The point is the I, not the want. Just listen to the little vocal break before the last chorus: Mike’s trying to preach it on what would ostensibly be the climax of this love-lost song, but behind him is this springy guitar line cake-walking with some easter-bunny bassline. Like I said: There's an understanding. Understanding that when Michael sings “Won’t you please let me / back in your heart?”, it isn’t actually a question.

    Was it ever, really?"

    -James Cavicchia

Bonus beat: Jackson 5: I Want You Back (Z-Trip Remix)
From Motown Remixed Vol 1 (Motown, 2005

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Monday, June 29, 2009

posted by O.W.

This is (probably) going to be the last post I'm going to do on M-J-5 for the time being, bringing to a close a rather crazy 5 day period where it was all MJ, all the time.

1) I just recorded this in the morning: The Soul Sides Kitchen-Cast w/ Ann Powers. Besides being a good friend, Ann also happens to be chief pop critic at the L.A. Times and I invited her over to talk about MJ's musical and cultural legacy in my kitchen (for the record, my green room provides Orangina and mixed nuts).

Here's the podcast in streaming form or you can download it here.

2) Wil and I recorded our Boogaloo[la] set from last Thursday which includes a 2 hour opening set that includes a good deal of lesser known J5 and MJ covers/remixes/songs. Then there was our 2 hour MJ5 set which slammed down all the "best ofs" into a party-smashing mix. You can download both:
  • Pre-Tribute set
  • Tribute set
    (Just remember this was recorded live!)

    P.S.: I've been trying to figure out why I've been so compelled to stay on story over the last five days and it's certainly not out of the tabloid fascination that will only grow (and get uglier) in the weeks to come. It's the music, always the music, that keeps drawing me back in and it finally dawned on me this morning that while MJ certainly wasn't the first pop artist I heard in my lifetime, he was so utterly everywhere at my entry into the pop world that everything I love about music, about its emotional power and reach - MJ was a foremost influence. In other words, his music was one of the most important ways through which I learned to love music. And so, in paying tribute to that musical legacy, I'm really just trying to find a way to express an appreciation for a gift that, 30 years after I first shook my tush to "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough," has continued to enrich my life on a daily basis. For that gift, I will remain forever thankful for MJ's music, regardless of what I may think of the man behind them.

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  • Sunday, June 28, 2009

    posted by Eric Luecking

    Lee Fields: Honey Dove
    From My World (Truth & Soul, 2009)

    If at first you don't succeed... well, you know the rest. Lee Fields lives the mantra. During the 70s he released several 7”s and a full length but never made it big. Thanks to crate diggers, he never left the conscience of the soul faithful. Truth & Soul, true to their name, signed him and released his latest album earlier this month.

    “Honey Dove” is quite representative of the album. With a lazy-summer-day guitar strum, it floats along like a gentle breeze. Fields fills the track with pleas to a lover who has gone and is begging her to come back. Toward the end of the track, horns gently blare echoing his yearning for his lover's return.

    Production is helmed by Jeff Silverman, who, before T & S made a name with the too-short-lived Soul Fire, and Leon Michels (of El Michels Affair fame) along with their coterie, and Fields takes to the mic and serves up a batch of goodness. “My World” is a smoothed-out and sublime work. The album even exhibits a couple of instrumental numbers, a rare feature of a vocal LP these days. Fields also mellows out the Supremes/HDH classic “My World Is Empty Without You.” Vocally, the album is a honey-tinged exhibit, a lesson in doing what you can do well. You don't need bells and whistles when you know how to make music sweet like this.

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    Saturday, June 27, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Last Thursday, Wil and I put together a night o' Michael, capped with a two hour set of straight M-J-5 songs that pretty much had the dance floor filled from start to finish.

    Anyone who has every DJed any party, anywhere knows that when everything else fails, you can always put on some MJ and it's like Insta-Party. As a fellow DJ wrote, "MJ has always been the most "guaranteed go-to" artist for DJs in the history of DJs." True that.

    The thing is...it's so easy to get the party started with MJ, it's like an unfair advantage over the audience. It's so easy that I've usually avoided playing anything too obvious by MJ simply because...it's too easy.

    And I was thinking: who else comes close to having that kind of power? The only artist even in the conversation is Prince but even then, we're talking about Purple Rain-era Prince mostly whereas with MJ, you can drop everything from "I Want You Back" (1970) to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" (1979) to "Billie Jean" (1982) to "Smooth Criminal" (1987) and it's on like Donkey Kong.

    But this post actually isn't about those songs. You don't really need me waxing poetic about "Billie Jean" or "I Want You Back." I'm here to dig beneath the #1 hits and offer up a playlist of some of my favorite M-J-5 related songs/covers/remixes that bring out the full spectrum of the artist and group's styles.

    Jackson 5: Big Boy
    From 7" (Steeltown, 1968).

    I learned about "Big Boy" gigging with some excellent soul selectors up in San Francisco and it's been a favorite "end of the night" ballad to throw on. What's remarkable here is that Jackson is...what? 9? 10? And yet listen to him try to sell his "age ain't nothin' but a #" smooth mack game. This song was evidently re-recoreded (or released with a separate mix) but I prefer the original 7" version. It's less cluttered which allows the vocal's poignancy to shine forth.

    Jackson 5: Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah
    From Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (Motown, 1969)

    An odd choice I know, least of which is the disturbing relationship to Song of the South and Disney's minstrel embrace. But forgive me for just finding this cover to be strange and kind of compelling. I mean, it's the Jackson 5 covering "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah". 'Nuff said.

    Jackson 5: 2-4-6-8
    From ABC (Motown, 1970)

    "ABC" is a cold classic, no doubt, but personally, I find myself bumpin' its numerical kin more often. I suppose Motown thought it'd be too shameless to drop this as a single too but for a formulaic song, it's irrepressibly catchy, no?

    Jackson 5: Darling Dear
    From Third Album (Motown, 1971)

    Pet peeve: no one in the Jackson camp or Motown brain trust could come up with a better title than Third Album? That aside, "Darling Dear" is one of those hidden gems from the MJ5 catalog that I only discovered recently (more on that later) and *whistle* what a beauty of a song.

    Nancy Holloway: Un Amour Aussi Grand
    From 7" (Barclay, 1971)

    Ah yes, the lovely Nancy Holloway, singing the big hit off of the Maybe Tomorrow album in français. Frankly, this song would probably work in Klingon but if you had to pick a non-English language for this, French is not a bad way to go.

    Jackson 5: I Wanna Be Where You Are
    From In Japan! (Motown Japan, 1973)

    Jackson's first solo album, released when he was all of 13, made a clear statement that he was as competent and capable rolling on his own as he was surrounded by his brothers. "I Wanna Be Where You Are" is one of the three big singles off this album (though I think far less people remember "Rockin' Robin" as compared to the title song) and has one of the most memorable opening lines in any pop song I can think of: "can it be I stayed away so long?" (Note: I love how it pops up on this song).

    Hua first put me up on this live version of the song, recorded during the Jacksons tour for Japan in 1973. I actually like 1) how they take out the guitars, which I always found a bit overpowering in the mix and 2) the audience handclaps in the background. (Zulema also does a great version of this song, which I included for an NPR.com piece that should run early next week.

    Michael Jackson: We've Got a Good Thing Going
    From Ben (Motown, 1972)

    Let's first say - best album featuring a rat on its cover, ever. Second, of all the songs I've been revisiting, this is the one that has me in straight rewind mode. Love the production - The Corporation execute beautifully on the rhythms and textures of this ballad and the songwriting is memorable without being overly simplistic. This song doesn't just "work" - it (and god help me, I really couldn't find a better phrase to use here even if it sounds like total boilerplate)...sings.

    Love. It. Love. It. Love. It.

    (By the way, someone pointed out that Sugar Minnot recorded a cover of this - crazy.

    DJ Bobo James: Good Thing Goin'
    Michael Jackson: We're Almost There (DJ Spinna Remix)
    Both from Soul Source: Jackson 5 Remixes, Vol. 2 (Universal, 2001)

    I should give credit - the main reason I know anything about either "We've Got a Good Thing" or "Darling Dear" is because I first heard the two songs combined in an awesome remix by DJ Bobo James. The first part of the song is playing off of "We've Got a Good Thing," especially the piano melody and then, midway through, he shifts to work off the strings of "Darling Dear." Put together, it's just a beaut of a song and it fueled my desire to hear the originals.

    On the same album, DJ Spinna drops another incredible remix, this one for "We're Almost There," from Jackson's slept-on Forever, Michael LP (his last for Motown). Wil ended our MJ tribute with this song and it was perfect. Dare I say but I think Spinna actually improves on the original here by stripping things down and building around the intense mix of hope and melancholy sublimated into Michael's vocals.

    Michael Jackson: Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough (demo)
    From Off the Wall (Remastered Edition) (Epic 1979/Sony 2001)

    Not all demo versions are necessarily worth a listen but in this case, the demo reveals so much about the musical process that resulted in one of the best songs off of Off the Wall. I really like how it sounds here, all stripped down and unglossy.

    For my NPR.com piece, I included the fantastic Derrick Laro and Trinity version of this song.

    SWV: Right Here (Human Nature Duet, Demolition Mix)
    From Remixes EP (RCA, 1994)

    Ok - we've arrived at Thriller (and I skipped over quite a few M-J-5 albums prior to this, I'll try to revisit those in a later post). Remember when SWV was kind of running sh-- back around '93/'94? Their remix EP finally cobbled together some of their stronger material, including that Wu-Tang remix of "Anything" that caught serious play for a hot minute. But you really couldn't front on the smoothness that was the "Human Nature Duet" mix which blended together "Right Here" and "Human Nature." To this day, I've wondered if they actually cleared the MJ and if so, what it cost them to do so.

    Michael Jackson: Pretty Young Thing (Demo)
    From The Ultimate Collection (Sony, 2004)

    In no way does this trump the awesomeness of the album version but it's interesting just to hear this super-quiet storm approach to the song in its infancy stages.

    Floetry: Butterflies (demo)
    From Floetic (Geffen, 2002)

    I didn't realize until now that "Butterflies," my favorite MJ song post-Thriller (and featured on his 2001 Invincible album) was actually, originally, a Floetry song, recorded by them in 1997 which MJ then basically re-recorded his vocals over. The tracks are almost identical except that the original Floetry version has that doubling of the snare every two bars or so which sounds somewhere between "cool" and "clunky." Otherwise, if you put this and MJ's up, side to side, you can hear how close they are. And I have to say...I think Jackson has the better vocal performance here (but hey, it's Michael).

    For a change, I did a basic mix of everything above. You can stream below or DL here.

    The Soul Sides M-J-5 Mix

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    Friday, June 26, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    From the time he was 10 Michael Jackson grew up in front of the world - first wonderfully, then weirdly, then woefully. His death at just 50 is hard to quite process. A tragedy? Yes but I'm not sure if it's any more tragic than the grotesque implosion of the rest of his life. I thought Hua had it exactly right: "Different versions of Michael Jackson had already died years ago."

    A similar point was echoed by my friend Eliani while we were noshing at 2am at the Taco Zone truck, following a two hour MJ5 tribute set with Wil at the Shortstop. In between bites of carnitas, she proffered (I'm paraphrasing), "depending on when you grew up, each of us has a different Michael Jackson we knew and lost."

    I was lucky to have grown up with one of the incadescent MJ incarnations. I probably heard a J5 song at some point in my '70s childhood but I don't actually remember hearing a Michael Jackson song until "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" and the Off the Wall album came out. I was probably 7 or 8 then, just discovering the radio and top 40 and so my exposure to the expansive world of pop was indelibly marked by his presence.

    It's been an interesting process, trying to decipher what exactly made him so great. After all, and this is not meant to be remotely disrespectful, but while Jackson clearly helped sell a gazillion records, if you actually parse down his musical impact, he's overshadowed by any number of peers. Some have had a greater, overall presence on pop music (James Brown + The Beatles), others have stayed in the mix as a creative force with more consistency (Dylan), and certainly, there's been other artists just as commercially successful but more adventurous (hello Prince!).

    That said, consider how a pre-pubescent child managed to score success on par with Marvin Gaye at the turn of the '60s/'70s, then gradually pull away from the machine (or if you prefer, The Corporation) that fueled his success, only to emerge into a solo career that didn't simply improve on his achievements but elevated him into the greatest pop artist of his generation.

    Child singers are simply not meant to survive into adulthood. I can only think of two similar examples: Stevie Wonder comes to mind but Stevie never had the kind of instant success that the Jackson 5 provided Michael (that said, Stevie's creativity is unparalleled, including by Michael). The other would be, interestingly, Celine Dion. Do with that what you will. However, those exceptions aside, pop music history is littered with the ghosts of child singers whose careers disappeared with the onset of puberty.

    Whatever the truths of Jackson's childhood (idyllic vs. tortured), what you can say is that he had to shoulder the same kind of creative challenges under the Motown system that his colleagues - thrice his age - were also dealing with. Not only that but he was expected, long before he was old enough to even drive, to emote the kind of passion, longing and melancholy that usually only repeated adult heartache gives you access to. Emotionally, he had to grow up in his singing much faster than what his physical age would otherwise belie. It's common to talk about J5 songs like "ABC" being "filled with innocence" but if you listen over the group and Jackson's solo catalog from the 1970s, there's a lot less sunshine than you'd imagine. That he managed to drop iconic, hit records throughout most of that process (with the exception of a fallow period in the mid-'70s) is a testament to his talent/genius/luck/whatever you want to call it.

    And therein, to me, lies both the triumph of his achievements but also the makings of his (and in a sense, our) tragedies. As Jeff Chang argued, "for that voice, he lost his childhood. Or more precisely, he gave it to us," which isn't quite like saying he died for our sins but I think part of what Jeff is suggesting is that if Michael wasn't blessed with such a magical presence, we may not have liked him so well. And if we didn't like him so well, maybe his life would have turned out more normal, less (self)-destructive. These "what if" scenarios are impossible to answer, of course. All we know is the Jackson we were given and if his life is to be read as a kind of sacrifice to our pleasure, at least we can honor that by celebrating his libations.

    Consider too: Jackson was a once-in-a-lifetime musical (and of course, cultural) figure, the likes of which will almost certainly never be duplicated again (sorry Jonas Brothers). The pop landscape has shifted, irrevocably I feel, over the last 10-20 years and the ability for a singular figure to become a multi-generational crossover star seems practically impossible. Of course, it probably seemed impossible back in the '70s...until Michael did it.

    I should add too: for all his foibles, scandals and just general surreality, I absolutely guarantee you that the music Jackson and his family left behind will only evolve to seem more sublime, enchanting and moving [1].

    Ok - so enough about legacy; next time I pop in, it'll be to talk about Jackson's music. In the meantime, here is arguably the most memorable performance MJ gave. It is still incredible some 26 years later.

    If you feel like it, here's me and Jay Smooth musing on MJ for The Sound of Young America, recorded earlier today.
    The Sound of Young America

    [1] This presumes there isn't some smoking gun evidence which comes out posthumously that MJ was indeed, guilty of child molestation. But even his music could likely survive that.


    posted by Eric Luecking

    Say Say Say it isn’t so.

    As I started to compose my thoughts for this piece, my jotted notes alone were close to a page-and-a-half, and I’m sure that even in those, I’m forgetting a couple of points I want to touch upon. Some people you just expect to live forever as they are almost larger than life. It’s perhaps, to me, my “where were you when you heard about Elvis’ death?” moment. With Farrah Fawcett - whose same-day death was only a matter of when given her ongoing struggle with cancer - or with legends such as James Brown or Isaac Hayes, whose careers were equally as defining and defying, but whose time out of their heyday was long gone, the announcements were not totally unexpected. Michael’s death, seemingly, came out of nowhere. There was Michael the person, and then there was Michael as a mythos, as bigger than life, as a FORCE, only one of which has expired.

    A showstopper in any definition of the word, he transcended generations and racial barriers. From oldies fans who were there from the start of his career in Gary to today’s young teens, whose attention span and too-cool-for-even-last-week’s-number-one-hit musical tastes rarely wander from the MTV playlists, he rocked them all. Even as I talked to a co-worker today, she told me about her 6-year-old son who goes to bed each night playing the Jackson 5’s greatest hits CD. That’s what you call IMPACT.

    He was from an ilk who could sing and perform a song with his own style and master it to a T. Perhaps most remembered for his performances, videos, and dance moves, he was a truly underappreciated singer. He sang songs with conviction (“Scream”), attitude (“Dirty Diana”), desire (“Heal The World”), a sense of longing (“Someone In The Dark”), and heartbreak (“She’s Out Of My Life”). His aforementioned style, shown in his vocal trademark hee-hees and grunts, was truly his own.

    “Someone In The Dark,” an oft-forgotten song from the E.T. audiobook/soundtrack, is from his most fruitful period (the Thriller days) and may perhaps be his best vocal performance on wax as it is sung with such passion and longing of someone needing a best friend. Even today as I listened to it on my drive to work, it brought on goosebumps, the surefire sign of a remarkable performance. It was the ‘80s version to his ‘70s “Ben” in that it was based on a film whose characters, in an alien and a rat, respectively, were misunderstood creatures, not unlike Michael himself.

    Even in the poignant, if a bit saccharine, “Gone Too Soon” (from Dangerous), you couldn’t help but marvel at his ability to take you to another place. The song was dedicated to fellow Hoosier Ryan White, whose battle with AIDS and being socially shunned from his small Midwestern community brought a hailstorm of national coverage, and was a subject with which Michael was all too familiar - a boy who never got to fully enjoy growing up. It’s no surprise that at song’s end you can literally hear his voice crack.

    Then there are the dance hits too plentiful to name. My DJ friend Apollo calls the breakdown in “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” one of the baddest breakdowns in pop music history. My personal favorite dance hit “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” has an undeniable energy and its African-influenced Makossa chant is the enchanter to even a non-dancer.

    There was the famous moonwalk that Michael debuted at the Motown 25 Live televised celebration. Even watching it to this day KNOWING what’s about to happen, I am just as spellbound. “What? No he didn’t just do that! But how?” * Rewind * Jaws dropped worldwide and everyone was trying to learn that step the next day. I, too, tried for hours on end to learn to moonwalk, not as a child, but as a mid-20s young adult.

    When was the last time you were at a party/club/wedding where you DIDN’T see someone emulate a Michael move? Several years ago at a wedding reception, family friend Chad Decker and another attendee did the entire dance sequence of the “Beat It” video, streetfight scene and all. I’m sure they hadn’t done it in years but it was so ingrained in their memories that they nailed it. The entire party seemed to stop for those 4 minutes. Afterward, people high-fived and were basking in the influence of Michael’s glow.

    When talking about him, you can’t forget how he changed what a music video could be, from short form to long form. You could make an entire movie like Moonwalker. It was only earlier this week that I was talking about Captain EO. Until seeing Up 3-D, Captain EO was the last 3-D film I had seen.

    I’m not even sure that the word “awesome” can encompass his talents. He was that big. But in attaining such great heights, you only have further to fall. Alluding to a follow-up comment to O.W.’s article yesterday by av2ts, it’s a country (and world) where people love to watch your meteoric rise but revel in watching the trainwreck and fall back to Earth and beyond. Too many people are eager and willing to uncover your dirt only to bury you in it, even if that means burying you alive.

    His level of fame was a two-sided coin where people didn’t fully want to let go of the great memories but couldn’t quite resist to bring him down a notch or three, especially of a figure who doesn’t quite fit into their idea of normalcy. If someone has such glaring eccentricities, then surely the rumor mills can’t all be untrue. At least, that’s how we’d like to rationalize it to ourselves.

    That being said, this may only be the case during his lifetime. In death, I believe the future will be kind to his legacy. For while his image was tarnished for the last 10-15 years of his life, people also love a resurrection and redemption of great icons. For all the joy he gave the world by making you feel ALIVE, these feelings can be too emotionally overbearing to dismiss. The eccentric behavior, the neverending surgeries, and the circus that was his life may end up being an asterisk on a career, and more importantly a life, that is too expansive to be summed up in a few words or thoughts.

    His lonely death is symbolic in that there was perhaps no musical artist still alive who was more revered but who lived in such an ensconced world. His world was like a travelling zoo except there was no cage to protect him from the onlookers and gawkers who wanted a piece of him. While he was ultimately responsible for himself and his actions, I, for one, could never accost him as he had so much burden to bear that it made me feel a bit sorry for him. For no one gained – or lost – quite as much as he did in his lifetime.

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    posted by O.W.

    Don't mean to compete with all the MJ5 content out there today (esp. since I'll be contributing to it) but my NPR Song List on soul siblings just ran yesterday.


    Thursday, June 25, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Update: On second thought, I think I was premature in suggesting that MJ's music couldn't outpace MJ's scandals. I've spent the afternoon and evening - like most people - revisiting his music and legacy and all the personal craziness more or less seems like someone else entirely. In other words, there was MJ on record and there was MJ the man but my emotional response to his music hasn't let the two blend together.

    That is the transcendent power of music, something that MJ, with few peers to match, excelled at throughout the best years decades of his career. Later this week, I'll try to do up something more proper in terms of a selection of some of my personal favorites from his catalog.

    By the way, I have to say, it is strange and sad to be in a world where Isaac Hayes, James Brown and Michael Jackson are no longer with us (amongst so many other legends).

    RIP to them all.

    If the news is indeed true that Michael Jackson has died today, a mere 50 years old, it's hard to greet the news with anything but a mixture of sadness and ambivalence.

    After all, how many other artists have seemingly done more damage to their own legacy than MJ? He went from one of the greatest talents that pop music has ever known to a surreal freak show to an accused pedophile. This is someone who's contributions to music should have transcended most of his personal foibles (pedophilia excepted) but instead, his tabloid exploits managed to become an inseparable part of his image and thus, memory.

    Marvin Gaye was apparently a real disturbed man and Miles Davis admitted to slapping his wives but those details are often treated as distinct from their musical lives. In MJ's cause, his "career" has become a conflation of everything; music takes up only part of it.

    That's hardly unique to MJ - Elvis comes to mind immediately too - but Elvis' musical majesty, in my opinion, never ran as long or as consistent as MJ in his prime, a period of time that at least begins as early as the first Jackson 5 singles (and that's pre-Motown, mind you), lasting to undeniable triumphs of Off the Wall and Thriller, and including a few key, post-Thriller songs.

    I don't enjoy those songs any less but there's always a stain below the surface, a reminder that simultaneously invokes a memory of "damn, he was good" immediately followed with, "damn, what a shame." I don't think there's much he could have done, had he lived longer, to escape that taint (let alone redeem it). I suppose it's out of sheer affection for his music that I wish it could have been different even though some might argue he didn't deserve such a salvation of his reputation. History will tell. For now, I'm content to simply listen.

    In lieu of a more organized/formal post, here's a rush job on tunes to listen to.

    ("Big Boy," an early, early J5 single on Steeltown)

    ("2 4 6 8." The numeric sequel to "ABC" recorded for the Jackson 5's second Motown LP.)

    ("Never Can Say Goodbye." Stone. Cold. Classic.)

    ("I Wanna Be Where You." Off of Jackson's solo debut, produced by Hal Davis and Willie Hutch.)

    ("I Can't Help It." Quiet storm at its best.)

    ("Butterflies." From his 2001 Invincible and one of the last great songs I heard from Jackson. Shout out to Floetry for the OG).

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    Tuesday, June 23, 2009

    posted by Eric Luecking

    Here are the winners for the cities/dates for which the contest was run. Thank you to all who participated and to Creative Artists Agency for sponsoring the contest!

    June 30 – St. Louis, MO (Fox Theatre) - Cheryl Jackson – WINNER!
    July 5 – Atlanta, GA (Chastain Park Amphitheatre) – Martina Efeyini – WINNER!
    July 21 – Chicago, IL (Ravinia Festival) – Julian Rosenberg – WINNER!


    1. What song from Evolver did John sing at the 2008 Democratic National Convention?
    2. True or False: John Legend graduated from an Ivy League school.
    3. What is John Legend's real name?


    1. If You're Out There
    2. True. John graduated from Upenn
    3. John Stephens

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    Sunday, June 21, 2009

    posted by Eric Luecking

    A few weeks ago I posted about Numero 25 being a book and 2LP set. Well, plans have changed as there has been a reshuffling of catalog numbers, and the results are even better than you can imagine.

    The book and 2LP release has now been given a new catalog number as Numero 33. You can view a promo of it here with Ricky Allen's “No Better Time Than Now” as a musical backdrop. The coffee table book features a photo collection as shot by Michael Abramson of Chicago nightlife in the mid-70s. The exciting thing is that with a pre-order you can get a download of the music now (yes, NOW!) and your book will ship in September (the street date is in November). Also, the first 250 pre-orders from Numero's site get a signed and hand-numbered print from the photographer as well as a bonus 45 (only 1000 pressed).

    So where does that leave Numero 25? Oh, all they did was rescue 6 tracks that were crumbling from the reels of the sophomore 24 Carat Black album that has never seen the light of day. Stay tuned as we'll be doing coverage closer to its release date (July 28).

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    posted by Eric Luecking

    Slum Village: Fall In Love (Remix)
    From Dillanthology 2 (Rapster, 2009)

    Lushlife: The Kindness
    From Cassette City (Rapster, 2009)

    The ReBel Yell: Everything She Wants
    From Unreleased (Rapster, 2009)

    UPDATE: The Dillanthology 2 and Lushlife albums have been pushed back to July 7.

    Who honestly doesn't like some Dilla in their life? Rapster's second volume in collecting his work in the cleverly-named Dillanthology series focuses on the remixes of the dearly-departed James Yancey. Did you miss that CD single/12” that had the “Woo Ha” remix? Did you, like me, not know that a Dilla remix of Lucy Pearl's “Without You” ever existed? If so, then this compilation is for you.

    You get a sense of the musicality that Dilla possessed as he reimagined tracks from jazz, hip hop, electronic and soul from artists from nearly all coasts and overseas on this release. Even more impressive you get different sounds such as a little boom-bap on De La to more mellow jazz-chord filled beats Mood's “Secrets Of The Sand.” This release hits stores Tuesday, July 7th.

    Also that Tuesday, you can pick up Lushlife's “Cassette City.” Lyrically, it's standard hip hop fare but the production is what really shines on this album.
    “In Soft Focus” has some nice DJ cut work while the horn-heavy “Another Word For Paradise” has a summer feel to it (while also bringing back long-lost Camp Lo). My personal favorite on the album is the laidback “The Kindness” with its nice chopped vocal sample with its screwed-vocals hook. Overall, it has a late-90s indie hip hop feel to it as you can hear on his Myspace page.

    The last of the bunch sounds like it might be bad on paper but excels in execution. Wham has become the butt of many jokes, but you know somewhere deep inside you dig a few of their songs. The ReBel Yell, who is being produced by none other than James Poyser, comes through with this synthy dancefloor stepper remake of the snarky “Everything She Wants.” This is only a teaser of The ReBel Yell's upcoming album “Love & War,” and as of now, this song isn't set to be on the album, which releases this August.

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    posted by Eric Luecking

    The winners of the Black Rio 2 CD are:

    Ruben Mendoza of California
    Ian Taylor from the Windy City
    Jason Villani from Connecticut
    Bill Belanger from Massachusetts
    Brad Shapiro from The Big Apple

    Again, thank you to Strut for the giveaways, and to you, our readers, for your continued support of Soul-Sides! Answers are below.


    1. The Batmacumba is a club where DJ Cliffy spins Brazilian music in what city?
    2. Name the world-famous landmark seen here.
    3. What is Brazil's official language?


    1. London, UK
    2. O Cristo Redentor (aka Christ The Redeemer)
    3. Portuguese

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    Saturday, June 20, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    The always solid Young Chris (Big City Records, NYC) throws down another soul set for the Never Not Working show on East Village Radio.

    posted by O.W.

    Reuben Bell & the Casanovas: It's Not That Easy
    From 7" (Murco, 1967). Also on Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures Vol. 1

    Reuben Bell: Superjock
    From 7" (Alarm, 1975). Also on New Orleans Funkiest Delicacies

    I had never heard of Reuben Bell until ten years ago, when DJs Shadow and Cut Chemist made "Superjock" one of the more memorable tunes off their Brainfreeze mix as a song about, well, DJing. Which disc jockey doesn't aspire to be describe as such: "he's number one/he's the turntable king/he's number one/when he's doing his thing/he really gets down with it"?

    By the time "Superjock" had come out though, Bell was already in mid-career, having kicked things off as more of a deep soul crooner beginning in the mid/late 1960s. I only recently got a copy of his very first single, "It's Not That Easy" feat. Bell and the Casanovas (thanks Mao!) and this is so quintessentially "deep soul" (emphasis on "deep").

    This is like heartbreak distilled into a record and what's especially powerful is how Bell was barely into his 20s when he recorded this; you can hear the youthfulness of his woes here...it's not a older man's more seasoned pain but carries a young man's earnestness - all the more devastating. Props to the Casanovas here - they do a phenomenal job of setting the tone with those bottomless basslines and the haunting, unsettling guitar.

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    posted by O.W.

    I've been working on a 4 hour Southern soul set for a private party and it's been an enjoyable challenge sifting through what seems like an endless stream of tunes from across the great Southern soul cities - especially Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Jackson, Miami, etc. New Orleans figures prominently but what I'm continually struck by is how distinct that NOLA sound is. Obviously, the South is hardly monolithic but while some influences are shared between, say, Fame and Stax Studios, much of what you heard coming out of New Orleans was so distinct, there's no confusing it for anywhere but there. Here's two NOLA-flavored cuts that exemplify what I'm talking about.

    Don Covay and the Jefferson Lemon Blues Band: Standing In the Grits Line
    From Different Strokes for Different Folks (Janus, 1970). Also on Super Bad.

    Professor Longhair: Big Chief (Pt. 1)
    From 7" (Watch, 1964). Also on New Orleans Funk.

    Covay isn't from Louisiana (South Carolina, as it were) but thanks to a journeyman career that saw him bouncing around on Atlantic, Columbia, Janus, Mercury, even Philly Int'l, Covay recorded throughout the south, especially his time with Atlantic that tended to jump from Southern studio to another thanks to Jerry Wexler's fickle tastes (and calculated business decisions). This album, recorded during Covay's brief stint on Janus, was recorded at the famed Malaco Studios in Jackson, MS and there's no question that for "Standing On the Grits Line," (a Covay composition), he's borrowing heavily from New Orleans' second line traditions - if the voice was just a bit gruffer, you could easily confused this for a Dr. John cut. This cut's long been a personal favorite of mine - I'm genuinely surprised I never posted this (last time I gave Covay some shine was for "If There's a Will, There's a Way", a cut from the same album)>.

    "Big Chief" is a stone cold New Orleans classic and considered by many a clear sign of the city's proto-funk innovations. Obviously, the Professor's jangling piano stands out prominently here but try to pay some attention to what Smokey Johnson is doing here on the drums. His polyrhythm is incredible - there's all kinds of seemingly off-beats here (except of course, sounding "off" is how you sound "on"). No wonder then that Smokey would become of the most important session drummers in New Orleans in the 1960s, alongside James Black.

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    Friday, June 19, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    I'm in the middle of more work-work-work that's slowing down my blogging output. In the meantime, enjoy this incredible video from The Flirtations (sorry, embedding disallowed).

    YouTube - The Flirtations - Nothing But A Heartache: "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39SjyMvBbk4"

    Monday, June 15, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Don't know why I put this off so long but Soul Sides is now on Facebook.

    Please be our fan! I'm trying to move people's attention away from our myspace page to our FB one and will use that as another space to update folks on our content, mixes and gigs.



    Saturday, June 13, 2009

    posted by O.W.


    Jay-Z: The Death of Auto-Tune
    From Blueprint 3 (Upcoming, 2009)

    Now that it's been out there for a couple of weeks, what's the verdict on this new Jay Z song?

    Personally, on first listen, the joint is rather fuego, especially as No I.D. hooks up a basher of a beat that has shades of "The Takeover" but instead of the Doors, the Chicago producer digs into his bag of library records:

    Janko Nilovic: In the Space
    From Psyc' Impressions (Montparnasse, 1970)

    Lyrically...I wanted to like this more than what's actually there to like. For one thing, it's about a year late and the timing here is everything - I read how someone called this "a trend song about a trend" and that's exactly on-point. Provided, it's not as out-of-time as some of Eminem's leftover disses from 2004 showing up on Relapse, but in 2009, auto-tune has already become so parodied, even Wendy's is up on it.

    It's not a bad song, all said...it just feels like something that screams "mixtape cut" (which, who knows, maybe all it will end up as).

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    posted by O.W.

    The latest Summer Songs post: Scott Saul on "Afternoon in Itapoã."


    Friday, June 12, 2009

    posted by Eric Luecking

    Guimaraes E O Grupo Som Sagrado: Our Sound + Os Diagonais: Na Vou Chorar
    From Black Rio 2: Original Samba Soul 1971-1980 (Strut, 2009)

    June 23rd sees the release of the second volume in the Black Rio series. The first in the series is now out of print. Compiled by DJ Cliffy, an expert in the field of Brazilian music, the set explores an explosive period in Brazilian soul and funk.

    The album features a wide range of style with two of my favorites I've posted above. The first by Guiamaraes E O Grupo Som Sagrado starts off with a wicked rhythm guitar and some nice percussion.

    The second by Os Diagonais has a very funky and heavily American-influenced feel (called Soul Brasileiro) that grabs the funky bass lines of the James Brown sound, and, in the middle section, a gruff voiced singer jumps in and reminds you of Kool & The Gang's “Jungle Boogie.” This song knocks about as hard as any of its American brethren.

    I may not know what they're singing about in all the songs (my Portuguese never was what it should have been), but I can dig the groove. It's not all foreign tongues. There was a group of singers known simply as The Brazilian Singers such as Otavio Augusto Fernandes Cardoso (aka Peter Dunaway), Jose Eduardo Franca Pontes (aka Joe Bridges), and Mauricio Alberto (aka Morris Albert) that were well known in Brazil for singing in English, even if it meant being castigated by local critics. But as it was, times were changing and this was one of the best ways for them to get heard on radio.

    With summer upon us, it's definitely a good pick up when you're out record shopping later this month. Courtesy of Strut, Soul-Sides is giving away FIVE copies that you can win before you can even buy it! Answer the three questions below for your chance to win. Many thanks to Strut for the giveaways, and to you, our readers, for your continued support of Soul-Sides!

    Even if you don't think you know all the answers, give it a shot. You can't win if you don't enter!

    Contest Rules:

    1. Contest ends at midnight on Friday, June 19, 2009. Entries that arrive after that time are ineligible.
    2. Only US addresses are eligible. Sorry international readers!
    3. Should there be more than five contestants with all correct answers, five names will be chosen in a drawing of those who answered correctly. Should fewer than five people answer correctly, then winners with all correct answers will automatically win with the remaining winners to be chosen by a random drawing.
    4. Your first response is your official and final response.
    5. You are only eligible to win one of the five CDs.


    1. The Batmacumba is a club where DJ Cliffy spins Brazilian music in what city?
    2. Name the world-famous landmark seen here.
    3. What is Brazil's official language?

    E-mail your responses to soulsideseric AT gmail.com and put Black Rio in the subject line.

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    Thursday, June 11, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Radio @ Soundway Records

    My man Beto drops a mix of some of the songs off the new Panama 2 comp. Fire!

    Bonus beats: Video trailer + an interview with Beto.


    posted by Eric Luecking

    This summer John Legend is embarking on a tour of the US to promote his latest album, Evolver, and we have a pair of tickets for several shows for you to win! If you can't stand the thought of missing his show in your town, you can purchase tickets through his official site. But if the budget's tight and you live in one of the cities below, you and a guest can go for free! All you have to do is answer the trivia questions below to enter.

    Here are the cities/dates we are giving away a pair of tickets to each show for:

    June 30 – St. Louis, MO (Fox Theatre)
    July 5 – Atlanta, GA (Chastain Park Amphitheatre)
    July 21 – Chicago, IL (Ravinia Festival)

    Contest Rules:

    1. Contest ends at midnight on Friday, June 19, 2009. Entries that arrive after that time are ineligible.
    2. Eligible contestants MUST be able to attend the show for which they win. Tickets will be left at will call of the venue and can only be picked up with the winner's ID (driver's license, etc.).
    3. Should there be more than one contestant (per show/city) with all correct answers, one name will be chosen in a drawing of those who answered correctly. Should no one answer correctly, a name will be chosen at random from all the entries (per show/city).
    4. The first response is the official and final response. One entry per contestant.
    5. You are only eligible to win one set of tickets for the entire contest.


    1. What song from Evolver did John sing at the 2008 Democratic National Convention?
    2. True or False: John Legend graduated from an Ivy League school.
    3. What is John Legend's real name?

    E-mail your responses to soulsideseric AT gmail.com and put John Legend – (City Name you're entering for) in the subject line.

    As always, even if you don't think you know all the answers, give it a shot. You can't win if you don't enter!

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    Wednesday, June 10, 2009

    posted by Eric Luecking

    The Budos Band: Ephra
    From The Budos Band EP (Daptone, 2009)

    The Budos Band, your favorite Staten Island soul stalwarts return to satiate you with a selection of scintillating songs. Available on June 23 on digital, vinyl, and CD (CD from Daptone's site ONLY), this EP covers ground between their debut and sophomore albums. Two tracks you may have heard previously - “Mas O Menos,” which was on The Budos Band II, and “The Proposition,” which was on a Budos Band 45 from 2006.

    The material here continues forth from their first album and gives you a sense of how they ended up with their second album – namely chunky bass riffs and solid horns. Some members of the band also perform with the Dap Kings, El Michels Affair, and the Menahan Street Band such as Tommy 'TNT' Brenneck and David Guy to name a few.

    Featured on the EP are six killer tracks and a short half-minute bonus track thrown in for good measure to give you a lucky seven. Tempo-wise, the album remains fairly constant. “Hidden Hand,” the opener, bubbles up with thick bass. “Smoke Gets In” sounds as if it's sneaking around an unfamiliar tomb. “Ephra,” named after the goddess who bestowed powers upon the knights of old Budonia, perhaps seized control of the band and gave them the power to create a playful rhythmic backbone that is overlaid by majestic horns. You almost feel like a harem should appear from around the corner and perform a ritualistic dance.

    For completists, this is a no-brainer purchase. For those who haven't yet gotten into the Budos Band I must ask, “What are you waiting for?” The Budos Band's sound reminds you of something you'd hear in an African or Middle Eastern bazaar where it would stand face-to-face with a snake charmer. If you don't watch out, you, too, could get bitten with their potent venom.

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    Wednesday, June 03, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Hello everyone,

    I meant to have this up and running last week but hey, the beauty of summer is that it can start whenever - the end of school, the Memorial Day weekend, if the mercury creeps over 70, etc. And so, with today, we start yet another year in our long-running Summer Songs series here at Soul Sides. I know it's cliche to say that each year will be "bigger and better" but I've been more ambitious in the last few years, inviting more folks to contribute their take on "what does summer sound like to you?"

    The first two posts are already up on our dedicated site - one from writer Michael Gonzales, thinking back on his summers in Pittsburgh. The other comes from writer-turning-scholar Pete L'Official, taking us on a massive tour of summer musings. In the weeks to come, anticipate contributions from everyone from music historians Lauren Onkey and Scott Saul to incomparable mixmasters DJs Cosmo Baker and Monk One to political/cultural columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates to DJ-turned-soul singer Mayer Hawthorne (and many more!)

    Also check out my man Jeff Weiss' "Summer Jamz" series, rescued from Stylus Magazine. Mo' summer songs, mo' better.

    Meanwhile, I'm posting (through a national firewall no less!) from Shanghai, wanting to remind folks out here I'm DJing at The Shelter on Friday night w/ DJs V-Nutz and J-Rocc.


    Monday, June 01, 2009

    posted by O.W.

    Phil Da Soulman: The Truth is Forever

    DJ Soul: Big L Tribute Mix

    Matthew Africa: The Best of DJ Quik

    All are recommended!