HEAVY AS STEEL

Dutch Rhythm Steel and Show Band: Down By the River.
From Soul Steel and Show (Negram 197?)

Ok – this is a little self-serving since this song is featured on my Deep Covers Mix-CD, with the not so-subliminal message being: COP MY SH*T!. That said, this song is just too good to keep hidden. It’s a steel drum band cover of Neil Young’s “Down by the River” and it is amazing. Funky, soulful and with such depth and power that I never, ever get tired of listening to it. My friend Dave Tompkins put me up on this via a radio interview he had recorded feat. DJ Shadow on some European radio show, where they played this. Truly awesome.

Myryam’s Quintette: Solo Quintette

From Discotheque ’71 (Syllart, 2000)

I first heard this song at KALX FM when the station got the CD in. This is taken from a compilation of Guinean pop songs from the early ’70s (part of a larger series where a new comp was issued every year between 1970 to at least 1976). I appreciate how funky “Solo Quintette” is but not in a really obvious or force manner – that string melody doubles as a rhythm track too and the lo-fi drums give the song a sharp kick. Yet, the interplay with the other strings give this some melodic complexity and the song manages to appeal to both ear and ass. I’ve always wanted to spin this cut out. Also, it sounds like the sample for Motion Man’s “Mo Like Flows On,” but that’s neither here nor there.

NATURE’S CHILDREN

Donny Hathaway: Jealous Guy.
From Live (Atlantic 1972)

I played this on my radio show last year and I just keep going back to it over and over. While I freely acknowledge the brilliance of John Lennon’s songwirting it’s all about Hathaway’s incredible, emotive voice. It always makes me sad to remember how short his life was (31 years) but my god, could he sing with the time he had.

Ramsey Lewis: Julia

From Mother Nature’s Son (Cadet, 1968)

 

Pianist Ramsey Lewis, along with Cadet’s Charles Stepney and Chess’ Marshall Chess, were so taken with the Beatles’ White Album, released just months earlier that they went in the studio and recorded ten cover songs from that album. The resulting LP, Mother Nature’s Son, produced a surprisingly striking collection of songs that both nod at the Beatles, even as they transform their sound. While a few of the cover songs fell flat, still others offered provocative interpretations. “Julia” is one such example – transforming the more plaintive, simple ballad by Lennon into a song of dramatic flourish and sweep. It retains its sublime character but Lewis and Stepney add a rich depth and bottom that goes beyond what Lennon imagined for it on The White Album. This song is just so damn gorgeous in whatever form.

FINDING A WAY

Moses Dillard and the Tex-Town Display: I’ve Got To Find a Way Pt. 2
From the 7″ single (Curtom, 1970)

Dillard was a guitarist out of South Carolina who worked both studio time at Muscle Shoals as well as lead his own bands, beginning in the mid 1960s. This 1970 single – arguably his biggest hit as a lead artist – was recorded with a young Peabo Bryson as part of the “Tex-Town Display.” Apparently, it sold a whopping 250,000 copies though it seemed to have flown underneath the radar of a lot of soul fans I know (myself included). What’s so great about the arrangement on “Pt. 2” of the song is how it goes from this sweet soul intro and then drops into some Issac Hayes-esque funkyness – I swear to god, it sounds like Dillard is biting Hayes’ “Walk on By” but I mean that in a good way. How is it that no one has ever sampled this? Paging Rza!

Aretha Franklin: Skylark (Alt. version). 
From The Queen in Waiting (The Columbia Years 1960-1965)

If you click on the link to my 2002 column on this Aretha anthology, you can read a lot more of the backstory to her years at Columbia. The short version is that before she became soul’s greatest vocalist, Aretha Franklin began her career as a jazz singer, trying to follow in the footsteps of folks like Dinah Washington. History has mostly forgotten that entire era and sure, there were some good reasons why her Columbia catalog was dismissed but c’mon – you can’t front on the whole damn thing and she sure as hell recorded some fantastic sides for them. This alternative mix of “Skylark” is probably my favorite song of her’s from those years. It was engineered to sound “live” which just means that the mood and tone is more intimate, more hushed. Simply beautiful.

MILKSHAKE FLAVORS

1) James Brown: Blind Man Can See It (from “Black Caesar” OST)

Determining the best James Brown album is like arguing over what flavor of milkshake is best – people have their personal preferences but you’re not likely to come up with something crappy in the end. That said, you have think that the “Black Caesar” album is going to be in hot contention, ranking among the best blaxploitation soundtracks of the 1970s and one of the few OSTs Brown ever participated so fully in. This album helped produce numerous future classics from Brown’s catalog such as “Sportin’ Life,” “Mama Feelgood,” and “The Boss” alongside a variety of lesser known (but no less quality) cuts such as “White Lightning,” “Make It Good To You,” and especially the incredible “Down and Out in New York.” However, the super-duper-cream-on-top-whole-milk cut is “Blind Man Can See It,” – a song first introduced in the hip-hop generation by Lord Finesse, then blown the fuck up by Das Efx and most recently recycled by Jin. What makes this cut the jammy jam? It’s just the memorable guitar loop that everybody samples – it initially comes in around :45 but the money hit comes after the first four bars when the theme seems to momentarily float away and then comes back hard with a short drum roll. Pure head nod moment for the rest of the song as you just ride out on James Brown’s smoky groove. Makes you say unnnnnnh without the nah, nah, nah, nah.

2) Aretha Franklin: Day Dreaming (from “Young, Gifted and Black”)

I can never pick my MOST favorite Aretha jawn,but right now, “Day Dreaming” has me something bad. The song is just so, well, dreamy which sounds a bit cliche, but how else can you describe the beginning of the song with its floating electric piano, lifting you up into heights unknown? Then the back-up singers start crooning and slowly build the door through which Aretha steps through – “he’s the kind of guy/who’d say/hey baby/let’s get away/let’s go someplace/huh/where I don’t caaaaaarrrrrrreeeeee.” I’m not necessarily into three-somes but damn, I kind of want to hitch a ride to wherever those two are headed. This song is just so gorgeous, not just with the arrangement and production, both of which are rich and full, but the interplay between Aretha and her back-up singers is so beautiful. They begin on the chorus with “hey baby/let’s get away/let’s somewhere/far/baby can we?” and then Aretha answers, “where I don’t caaaaaaaarrrreeeee.” I could spend days in this song and not want to come out for air, water, Tivo, whatever.

3) Alicia Keys: You Don’t Know My Name (from “The Diary of Alicia Keys”)

I’m a little late in getting around to actually listening to this LP and I can thank MTV2’s “Hip-Hop’s Most Entertaining Videos” for introducing me to this song in particular. Let me get the bad stuff out of the way: I know Alicia is trying to capture that old school soul vibe, chatting things up on the song like Barry White, but it just does NOT work here. She goes on for far too long and with some truly inane patter. This isn’t Barry trying to talk someone’s panties off with a deep-throated “hey baby, you feel so good to me, I just want to lay you down and make love to you.” Instead, Alicia is talking about how she uses milk and cream to make Mos Def’s hot chocolate instead of water like her manager wants her too and the absolute WORST moment – talking about how her cell phone is losing reception. I mean, what the fuck is this, a Verizon commercial? Honey just needs to sing and play the piano and leave the stream of consciousness babble to a skit but instead, she goes on for A MINUTE AND A HALF which feels more like half an hour. It’s like going on a date with some super hot girl or guy you just met and then you realize that they just keep talking and talking and talking about nothing and you start inventing excuses about why you have to leave in order to bury a grandparent or maybe darn your socks.

Yet, despite this egregious display of bad musical judgment, the other 4.5 minutes of the song are gorgeous, probably one of the best new soul songs I’ve heard in at least a year, if not more. I mean, maybe Beyonce can make the hotter club cut, but Yonce can’t sing. Alicia can – she can croon, she can warble, she can shoo-be-doop and cop ’em with the best and she’s just so butter on this. Of course, you also have to give ample credit to producer Kanye West, as well as the Main Ingredient whose “Let Me Prove My Love” powers the entire beat. The combined elements creates a song in the best tradition of the Philly Sound, Chi-Lites and any number of other soul legends of the ’70s. The hotness is the piano decrescendo (also from the Main Ingredient) that Kanye carefully sprinkles only on the chorus and its unexpected inclusion adds just the right touch to make the song even more memorable. It says a lot that this song can annoy the hell out of me but I still can’t get enough of it.

One more thing that I’m still trying to work out is why I like how the song opens, with its quintet of descending whole notes. My current theory is that this melodic entry is unexpected. In the original Main Ingredient song, it only comes at the END of a two bar measure but here, Kanye has moved it to the beginning and it’s as if you step into a song already in progress, like walking into a club that’s already popping off with some crazy vibe. You catch up with the song within an instant, but from there on out, those five notes keep coming back and they’re always just a little bit unexpected, a little surprising, like a present you can get over and over again but never gets old.

4) The Beatles: Long, Long, Long (from “The Beatles” aka “The White Album”)

Ok, I already gave this LP props in my album appreciation but I wanted to highlight this song in particular. It’s one of George Harrison’s lone offerings from “The White Album” (his most famous being “As My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and it’s such an interesting, lonesome ballad. It begins so quiet and it mostly is a quiet song except for Ringo’s moments of percussive interruption but the arrangement also moves off in directions you don’t expect it too (especially at the end). Also, I’m no Elliot Smith expert but doesn’t it sound like he cribbed most of his singing career off this one song? I could’ve sworn that this was “Miss Misery” if I wasn’t paying more attention.

5) Eddie Kendricks: Intimate Friends (from “Slick”)

I first became acquainted with this song through Common Sense’s “A Penny For My Thoughts” which samples it and I always wondered what that gorgeous soul cut was. Eventually, I discovered it was Eddie Kendricks who I feel like was never given his propers as one of the illest soulsters of the ’70s. Not like Kendricks is some unsung secret but if you listen to his body of work, he’s definitely in rotation with the finest that decade produced – such a sweet voice with hidden depth. “Intimate Friends” is a later ballad, circa 1977, and it’s produced superbly – crazy cooled out and mellow but heavy and deep like the mind of Farrakhan, the song’s a soul phenomenon. You just want to climb into this, as if the song were a nice flannel blanket and chill there with your girl and maybe some fuzzy puppies or something. Ok, or maybe not. You get the idea.

7″ GRAB BAG

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.

HUNGARIAN HEAT

Zalatnay Sarolta: Hadd Mondjam El (Pepita 197?)

I’ve been on some weird European kick lately – Swedish, Polish, Finnish, etc. LPs and 45s have really been catching my eye. This Hungarian female rock LP has been seen gracing both the Groove Merchant and Sound Library’s walls o’ fame and I can see why. For them drum break junkies (of which I am admirer though not full-time addict), this record is pretty friggin’ sick and I’m just tickled that it’s on…well…a Hungarian female rock album. I mean, I’m sure this stuff grows like trees over in Hungary but out here, it’s pretty outstanding.

Sarolta’s vocals are ok but then again, I don’t speak Hungarian so what can I really say? Many of the arrangements don’t catch your ear per se, though there sounds to be a Wurtlizer or Rhodes somewhere in the mix. Maybe a clavinet too. But seriously, whoever’s working the drum kit on this MFer deserves some props. The drums on the title cut are ridiculous – big, fat, clean, as if Bob Powers cleaned it up. The opening break on “Ne Hidd El” sounds straight up like a twist on the “Put Your Hand in the Hand” pattern and song for song, this is probably the best track as Sarolta finally lets her vocals out to play a bit (she’s rather restrained elsewhere). The break returns midway through, this time accompanied by a firm bass guitar. And ending side A is “Egyszer…” which has a chicken scratch guitar accompanying the opening break as the song kicks into a swinging party jam.

Like I said, this LP might appeal more to break heads but as for me, it gets by just fine on the novelty factor.

SMOKIN

The Nilsmen: Le Winston b/w The Sand Step (RJR 196?)

There’s actually two covers to this 45, one that has “The Sand Step” on the front and feat. a woman sitting on the beach, but I’m going with Bardot puffing on a cancer stick. “Le Winston” is a little too high energy for my tastes though it’s not bad per se. The real gem is the flip – “The Sand Step” is one smokin’, groovin’ mod organ banger. It sizzles on this infectious bassline and organ vamp that runs throughout and the drums break down three times to boot. At the beginning and end, a sexy, breathy female voice says, “sand step” and I don’t know if it’s a dance or what but I’m down for it.

BEEN HERE

Patti Drew: I’ve Been Here All The Time (Capitol 1969)

I admit – I’m a sucker for female vocals these days. Soul just sounds better when you have a soul sister scream and swooning on it and I’ve been collecting up a storm of different records featuring funk fatales. This Patti Drew record has been a personal favorite of late too because its two best songs are also covers (another obsession of mine). The first is the sizzling hot version of “Fever” that’s…well…hot. Not only does it scorch along but it also has the album’s most ambitious music, throwing in a slick electric piano alongside more conventional brass and a whipped rhythm section. Then there’s her cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” which is very loyal to the original but – and this is where it all comes together – it’s the fact that it’s sung by a woman that notches up the wickedness factor. Yow! (Alas, the rest of the album is not so noteworthy…still, two cuts is twice as nice as an LP with only one.)