Thursday, December 25, 2008

posted by O.W.

James Brown: Bring It Up
From 7" (King, 1967)

Throw out that Xmas music and get down with the Godfather.

Two years gone but like it says above, his groove never dies.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

posted by O.W.

I Got The Feelin': James Brown in the '60s (Shout Factory, 2008)

Joe Bataan: Mr. New York Is Back (Vampisoul, 2008)

Finally took some time recently to look at two music-related DVDs.

The first is I Got the Feelin': James Brown In the '60s, a 3-DVD set comprised of two concerts (Boston Gardens, 4/5/68 & the Apollo Theater, 3/68), plus a documentary, The Night James Brown Saved Boston.

The latter is in reference to one of the astounding cultural moments of the turbulent late '60s: the day after MLK's assassination, Brown came to Boston and it was decided that not only would the show go on, but WGBH would broadcast the show throughout the city as a way to "keep the peace." To that degree, it was successful as Boston did not suffer the same levels of rioting or arrests as other major American cities.

Here's some video from one of the tensest moments from that evening:

The doc is by director David Leaf (same guy who made John Lennon vs. the U.S.) and I have to say; it's worth the price of the box-set itself. I thought the film did an excellent job of not just framing the events leading up to and following the April 5th show, but more importantly, it contextualizes the complexities and contradictions of James Brown as a civic, cultural and political leader of the time. I think there's a conventional wisdom that Brown was a shrewd opportunist - which he was - but in an era of such remarkable strife in America, Brown also tried to step up in the social realm as well and while he certainly wasn't the most consistent of activists (see: endorsing Nixon, oof!), is complexities help make him a richer character study; something this documentary drives how very, very well. To boot, it has superior production values and some incredible footage of the time.

So good in fact that I wasn't as invested in watching the actual show itself though, at some later point, I'll probably go back to it. The Live at the Apollo '68 footage was compelling as well, especially since it's intercut with segments of James Brown reflecting on the state of America while being filmed, walking around uptown New York. It's not, in my opinion, his most scintillating concert (you need to find his Olympia, 1971 show, holy mother of god) but it's shot and recorded well. The extra bonus footage of him performing with the Famous Flames from 1964 is especially killer. For one, his performance presence was well-honed from early on and second, his performance of "Out of Sight" is such a clear predictor of his future funk innovations.

The other DVD I watched was Joe Bataan: Mr. New York Is Back from Vampisoul, the Spanish label that released Joe's comeback album, Call My Name. I have to confess, much as I wanted to really like this - and I'm obviously a big fan of Joe - it does feel kind of slapped together. For one, the video relies on a single interview done with Joe with poor lighting and apparently, no boom mic so the sound isn't great. It's not unwatchable but it also doesn't feel particularly professional. Overall, the documentary has its moments, especially with all the vintage photographs that they dug up for it but especially having just seen The Night James Brown Saved Boston, the difference in production is easily seen.

Here's a trailer for the doc:

Second, the English version hires someone for whom English isn't his first language and while he's intelligible, his sense of English's spoken cadence and pronunciations is off enough that it proves to be a distraction.

Third, among the bonus material, there's a discography that's full of wrong dates and albums that aren't actually part of Joe's formal discography; sloppy stuff.

Ok: the good stuff? Also on the bonus material are two different videos, filmed in Europe I believe, for "Rap O Clap O," Joe's big hip-hop hit from 1979. Just as time capsule, both are great and can be enjoyed both genuinely and ironically. The bonus material also includes a somewhat poor recording of a 1995 show at S.O.B.s but also has better footage from a 2005 show in Spain (though again, the audio quality is notably thin).

Here's a bonus video (not one of the ones on the DVD) of one of Joe's European appearances:

In short, I'm glad something like this is out there but it also suggests that there's room for improvement for a future Joe Bataan documentary to tackle.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

posted by O.W.

I recorded this mix for back in June and is now available on their website archive. I originally created it as a promo mix for Deep Covers 2 (though the timing was off since Dublab was back-logged over the summer). Still, I put in a nice selection of different cover songs here - some you've heard, some you haven't. Here's the tracklisting:
    Simply Red - I Know You Got Soul - You’ve Got It - WEA

    James Brown: Your Cheatin’ Heart - Soul On Top - King

    Jimmy McGriff - Ain’t It Funky Now - SOul Sugar - Groove Merchant

    Bo Diddley - Bad Side of the Moon - Another Dimension - Chess

    The Gimmicks - California Soul - Em Las Brisas - Swedisc

    Klaus Wunderlich - Summertime - Hammond Fur Millionen - Telefunken

    The Professionals - Theme From Godfather - On Tour - CES

    Dutch Rhythm Steel and Show Band - Down By the River - Soul, Steel and Show - Negram

    Byron Lee and the Dragonaires - Express Yourself - Reggay Splashdown! - Dynamic

    Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band - Movin’ On Up - Live at the Haunted House - Rhino Handmade

    Hielo Ardiente - Mensaje (The Message) - Ritmo Ardiente - Dicesa

    Al Escobar - Tighten Up - The Modern SOunds of Al Escobar - Tico

    El Freddy Flaco - K-Jee - La Fiesta Vol. 2 - FTA

    Manny Bolone and His Latin Boys - Micaela - Boogaloo - Boogaloo

    Conjunto Universal - Que Se Sepa - Que Se Sepa - Velvet

    Enrique Lynch - Viva Tirado - Sexympacto - Sono Radio

    Wganda Kenya - El Abanico - COmo Se Hace Ah - Fuentes

    Alton Ellis - What Does It Take To Win Your Love - Sunday Coming - Coxsone

    Sparrow’s Troubadours - Soulful Strut - Hot and Sweet - Hilary

    Joe Bataan - More Love - Singin’ Some Soul - Fania

    Margie Joseph - Let’s Stay Together - S/T - Atlantic

    Rhetta Hughes - Light My Fire - Re-Light My Fire - Tetragammon

    West Coast Revival - Feelin’ Alright - S/T - LAX

    Hodges, James, Smith and Crawford - Nobody - 7″ - Mpingo

    El Alamo - Candy - Malos Pensamientos - Decibel

    Donovan Carless - Be Thankful FOr What You Got - 7″ - Impact

    Nancy Holloway - Never Can Say GOodbye - 7″ - N/A

    Mark Holder - Sweet Caroline - Where THere’s a Will, There’s a Way - Deriva
And just because I wanted to be a good egg - I created a downloadable version of the mix, split into individual tracks (but no IDs written; I'm lazy - deal).

Enjoy! Hopefully I'll be rolling back to Dublab to do another mix soon.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

posted by O.W.

The Exciters: Yo, Que Nada Tengo + Let Your Self Go
From S/T (Tamayo, late '60s?)

Margie Joseph: I Can't Move No Mountains + The Same Love That Made Me Laugh
From Margie (Atlantic, 1975)

I was thinking of something Murphy's Law wrote a few weeks back: "THE DEEPER YOU GET, THE DEEPER THE MUSIC GET. There is more ill music out there than you and I can wrap our sorry little heads around."

To me, the second statement actually refutes the former because really, there's an incredibly, unfathomable amount of "ill music out there" on the surface that you don't always need to "go deep" in order to find it.

That isn't to say that "going deep" doesn't have its own rewards. But rarity and quality are not commensurate. The relative quality of my best $10 albums probably kick the ass of other records I own that go from 10-20 times that. The main difference is that Al Green and James Brown albums were pressed in the millions. West Coast Revival...not so much.

Ultimately, it's about searching for the sublime and to a certain extent, whether that manifests in the form of a $1 bin cut-out record or a $300 private press LP off Atomic's wall, if you have the means, either is worth acquiring. Of course, rarity is a quality in and of itself...not because it's better but often it is...quirkier. I'm generalizing of course but for those who don't believe that popularity is determined by marketing alone, songs/albums that catch fire usually do so because they appeal to a wide swath of people. The albums that end up with runs smaller than batting averages - those are the ones that never caught on with anyone. Maybe they were ahead of their time. Maybe they were just too weird. Maybe someone was broke. Regardless, the higher up the record chain (or deeper if you prefer), it's more likely you're going to find something that's just a bit "off." And that may not always equate to sublime in the way, say, Willie Mitchell's production is sublime. But it can equal "something you haven't heard before." (Secret translation: "interesting enough that you just mortgaged your daughter's college fund for it.")[1]

This post mixes it up both ways. I start with The Exciters' self-titled album on the Panamaian imprint Tamayo. Like most, I learned about the group through the excellent Panama comp that my man Beto worked on and luckily, when he had a copy for sale, I decided to take the plunge on it. It is, to be sure, a very quirky album, which befits the unique Panamanian geography of sound.

You can literally throw a dart at the tracklisting (preferably not however) and each song will come from a vastly different genre. My favorite song is actually the "Exciters Theme" (but you'll have to cop the CD to enjoy it in full) but there's also a nice merengue tipico track, "Ese Muerto No Lo Cargo Yo," for the dancefloor. There's also several American covers, none more mesmerizing than the Spanish language cover of "I, Who Have Nothing", "Yo, Que Nada Tengo." I don't know how they're processing those guitars at the beginning, but it almost sounds like a steel guitar...played underwater.

No less surprising is the cover of James Brown's "Let Yourself Go" - a modest 1967 hit. The version doesn't hold up against the original (though the Exciters' guitarist should do Jimmy Nolen proud) but I do always love hearing Brown covered outside of the U.S.

Ok - so that's the money record. Here's the bargain bin gem: I first heard "I Can't Move No Mountains" when Hua and I did our Redwood gig and he dropped this Joseph track on 45. It sounded amazing played out loud - the kind of disco cut you wish people would think of when they hear of the word "disco" instead of crap like this. (For starters, it all but annihilates the original. I seriously can't get enough of this song and best of all - it's off an album that rarely goes for very much at all (at least on vinyl. The only CD version that's been readily avail was on Japanese import but it looks like it's finally getting a domestic release next month). It's a proverbial steal.

Plus, besides that song, you also get a very nice cover of Bill Withers' "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh." Sweet.

The moral is that there's so much great music out there to discover and whether it costs you $1 or $100 or even $1000, the experience of hearing a great song for the first time is [wait for it]...priceless.

[1] Here's a little secret: I almost never share songs from the latter, "top shelf" albums or 45s. This is likely a generational thing - I'm young enough to enjoy - really enjoy - blogging about music but I'm still part of an older school of collecting that keeps certain cards close to the chest. I know other bloggers/collectors don't feel the same way (hence the rash of album-oriented audioblogs that post up stuff like, well, like that West Coast Revival album that I spent a pretty penny on only to see it posted up two weeks later. %*#)@!) and I respect their generosity, especially since it helps expose me to other records. That said, my holy grails and white whales tend only to get shared at the club or on a mixtape but I never felt Soul Sides suffered for it since, as noted, the amount of great - common - records out there is unbelievably deep that it's not like anyone's lacking because they haven't heard that Filipino version of "Tango Goo Bonk" I keep squirreled away.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Another Soul Sides Space Filler
posted by O.W.

James Brown in Paris, 1971

(Sorry, too busy to post right now but I'm working on some big things I'll share soon).

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Sunday, December 31, 2006

posted by O.W.

James Brown: Night Train
From 7" (King, 1962)

James Brown: I've Got Money
From 7" (B-side of "Three Hearts In a Tangle") (King, 1963)

James Brown: Out of Sight
From 7" (Smash, 1964)

All available on Star Time.

I've been working on a JB appreciation essay for MTV's URGE site and in the course of doing research, I got into this tangential query of my own: where exactly did Brown and the JBs' innovations for funk begin? Depending on who you ask, different scholars/critics have varying opinions. This what most agree upon: "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" was the first hit record by Brown that clearly put forward his and the band's funk ideas ("Cold Sweat" further expanded on them). However, there were at least three singles before "Brand New Bag," that also point to the new directions in rhythm that Brown was working with.

The first was 1962's "Night Train," a song that should be familiar to most out there (but I'm including it anyways). The rhythm isn't as advanced as some of the later songs and the drums (played by James himself) are pretty straight forward rather than on some sophisticated syncopation tip. But the bassline - which is incontrovertibly funky - is definitely "on the one," which nods to a proto-funk sensibility and you'll notice that the horns on that song play much more of a percussive (rather than harmonic/melodic) function, which is one of the things that the JB horns would eventually become famous for by mid/late decade.

"I've Got Money" is a revelation - I had never heard it before until recently[1] and remember: it's from 1963. That's Clayton Fillyau on the drums, knocking out that wicked uptempo breakbeat (I'm assuming it's also Jimmy Nolen on guitar). Fllyau didn't grow up in New Orleans but he learned his drumming from NOLA stickmen which explains that prominent, second line style of syncopation he has going there. Seems like a lot of folks don't tend to talk about this single as being part of the Brown funk evolution but Jim Payne's Give the Drummers Some goes out of its way to credit the song as being incredibly important in understanding the connection between Brown, funk and the New Orleans' second line tradition.

(Here's a little bonus: "I've Got Money," isolated in the left channel, which is where the drums are. Fillyau is killing it here. "Amen, Brother," eat your heart out.

Last, there's "Out of Sight," the song that The Funky 16 Corners identifies as the main proto-funk song in the Brown catalog. It definitely sounds different from both "Night Train" and "I've Got Money," - has more of that slinky swing that we associate with the JB sound. No wonder too - the basic rhythm on this song was retasked to become "Papa's Got a Brand New Band."

And with that - happy new year. Thanks for everyone for supporting and Soul Sides Vol. 1 in 2006. Expect to see Vol 2 coming very soon in 2007.

[1] By the way, thanks to Doug Wolk with compiling almost every single JB or JB-produced single ever released. Sure makes doing research like this a lot easier!

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

posted by O.W.

James Brown: Talkin' Loud And Saying Nothin' (Original Rock Version)
From 7" (King promo-only, 1970). Also available on: James Brown's Funky People 3.

James Brown: Give It Up Or Turn It Loose (Remix)
From In the Jungle Groove (Polydor, 1986)

Bonus: James Brown: Turn the Break Loose ( edit)

I'm genuinely honored that people expect the site to have something poignant to say about James Brown but honestly, I don't really have much to add besides 1) what I've already noted and 2) what other writers I respect have had to say about it. Maybe at some far later point, I'll have an epiphany to share but for now, I think there's enough very qualified voices out there who can breakdown everything you've wanted to know about his career and legacy without me having to reinvent the wheel on that one.

Instead, I want to simply share a few songs that have always been my favorites out of his catalog - and there are many, so expect this to be in the first in a long series.

What's remarkable about the two songs I have here is that neither ever saw a proper release until the 1980s and '90s even though, to me, they are far superior versions of songs that otherwise did appear as either commercial released singles or album cuts in the 1970s. The "Original Rock Version" of "Talkin' Loud and Saying Nothin'" was an unreleased King promo (still available on 7" for the intrepid) from 1970. It was recorded with producer Dave Matthews as part of the same sessions that eventually produced Sho Is Funky Down Here (often considered one of the black sheep of Brown's catalog, though people said the same thing about Gettin' Down To it and Soul On Top and I think history has vindicated both are marvelous examples of Brown's creativity and versatility). That album was Brown's attempt to foray into "rock" (though not like any rock music you could really compare it to) which explains the rougher, more fuzzed out sound of this version of the song. Brown eventually did release "Talkin' Loud" in 1972 but it was a different version, recorded in 1970 with the Pacesetters' era of the JBs).

Not to take anything away from that hit version (which was a monster smash for Brown) but I prefer the original version far, far more. Start with that raw guitar and the, "how ya like me now?" taunt that begin the song and then dig into the seams of what almost sounds like a garage funk rendition of the song's now familiar rhythms and lyrics. The JBs version sounds practically genteel in comparison to the rough edges of the original. It's possibly my favorite Brown single to play out when I spin - it just sounds incredible to me.

Same goes for the six minute version of "Give It Up Or Turn It Loose," possibly the most explosive funk groove that Brown ever laid out (though, in all fairness, there's many songs that could vie for that title). The song existed, in a sense, on the Sex Machine album but only as part of a medley and with overdubbed audience noise on it. This version (which again, is NOT like the actual commercial single) didn't receive a proper release until 1986 where it helped anchor the much-lauded In the Jungle Groove compilation, an anthology that went a long, long, long way to re-establishing Brown's centrality in the evolution of Black (and just plain American) music given how it became the blueprint for hip-hop's early sampling era.

In any case, this version of "Give It Up" is molten hot from jump. It's not wildly different in basic arrangement from the commercial version though it exclusively features a B3 Hammond organ. But whereas the commercial release is more stately and tightly wound, the Jungle Groove version really does turn things loose with a more expansive sound and energetic pulse. What makes it so insanely good though is the bridge which drops in around 4:20 where Brown strips things down into a simple conga beat and handclaps and exhorts you to: "clap your hands/stomp your feet/in the jungle brother" and follows this through for a few bars until yelling, "CLYDE!" and here comes Stubblefield on one of the greatest breaks in funk history before another four bars rolls by and here's James' yelling, "BOOTSY!" and Collins lays in with a mean bassline.

I liked this break so much, I made an edit of it so I could DJ with just that portion of the song through the track's end. It doesn't do proper justice to the entire song but think of it as a quick treat instead.

By the way, if you don't own In the Jungle Groove, it is, quite easily, the first album I'd recommend to anyone who wants to start digging into Brown's catalog. That's just my personal opinion and there will no doubt be other Brown fans who would suggest instead going with something far earlier (and hey, we'll get there) but for my generation, In the Jungle Groove is the Brown we first came to know (after *cough cough* conveniently forgetting "Living In America") and 20 years later, that anthology is still one of the hardest f***ing collections of music I know out there.

WFMU's Beware of the Blog has an excellent round-up of JB coverage 'round the WWW.

WFMU's "Music to Spazz By" show also had a three-hour dedication to the music of JB available in streaming audio.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

posted by O.W.

5/3/33 - 12/25/06

I've said this before but we are living through an era where many of the legends of soul music are quickly passing away. There were many we lost far before their time - Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye for example - but in the last few years, age (and poor health) is beginning to claim more and more. It's inevitable that we all die, of course, but who thought that we'd ever lose James Brown (especially at age 73)?

It's inevitable that I, amongst millions of others, will probably think about when they last saw Brown perform. That is the most indelible public image people have of Brown - as the Showman. Certainly, there were few performers who could command the stage like Brown. I saw him at the Hollywood Bowl just this past September for his Soul On Top show. Even at 73, he was spry, energetic and powerful. He knew what everyone was there for, he knew how to deliver for them. Ironically, I plan to go see Dreamgirls today and one of the central characters, James "Thunder" Early (played by Eddie Murphy) is modeled largely on Brown. He is, now and forever, the gold standard in performers.

But even if Brown had never taken a step onto a stage throughout his life, he still would have been - hands-down - one of the most important musical forces of the last 100 years in how he transformed the literal rhythm of popular music. The ways in which he introduced new forms of syncopation and polyrhythm into the gospel, blues and jazz training of his youth lead to a revolution in sound and style within soul music. Brown didn't invent funk (no single artist did) but he transformed the sound of popular music through his funk innovations. And of course, in the process, he also created scores of samples that, a generation later, would become the bedrock upon which hip-hop was built.

I can't even begin to summarize just how extraordinarily important he was, let alone go on the fool's errand of trying to pinpoint his best music (though I suspect that won't stop me from trying once I have more time to do so). His import as a cultural (and political) figure cannot be understated either. (This PBS profile of him does a good job for someone looking for a basic primer on Brown).

I will share this much though: I interviewed Brown in late August regarding the Soul On Top show. I initially was skeptical about taking the story on: I was trying to juggle a new job, still settling in from a laborious relocation and doing a feature story for the L.A. Times wasn't at the top of my list of priorities given the amount of time I knew it'd take. But I could get to interview James Brown. That, to me, was a no-brainer. You do the story, period.

Here's a short excerpt from that interview with Brown talking about how jazz played a role in his ideas about R&B. I'd explain what is so delightful about this but I don't it's necessary.

There will be a million and one youtube tributes and I'm not mad at that, obviously but definitely don't sleep on this (speaking of Soul on Top).

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

posted by O.W.

James Brown: Your Cheatin' Heart + September Song
From Soul On Top (King, 1970)

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work on a story for the L.A. Times that ran today about James Brown's "Soul On Top" concert he's giving tomorrow at the Hollywood Bowl. The article breaks down the history of the project but here's the short version: Soul On Top was a 1970 album Brown recorded with a 20 piece big band lead by drummer Louie Bellson with arrangements by Oliver Nelson. For the concert, Brown is teaming with Christian McBride who put together a 17 piece band and Bellson will be featured on at least one song.

Like 1969's Gettin' Down To It (recorded with Cincinnati's Dee Felice Trio), it has Brown singing jazz, pop and country standards with a "jazz" band though obviously, the big band power of Bellson's players creates a different atmosphere than what Felice's trio knocked out. All in all, it's one of Brown's more interesting albums to be sure - it probably sounds less dramatic now (in a time where "big band funk" isn't as unusual as it might have been in the late '60s) but it's not less unique amongst Brown's massive catalog. I wanted to do two things with this post: one was to give folks a sampling of this album, the other to add some details that, for a variety of reasons, were left out of my story.

To begin with: it was very tough just selecting two songs from the album since really, I would have been just as happy with another pair than what I selected. What these two share in common - and why I chose them - is that they're some of the more dramatic re-envisonings of "classic" standards that Brown had and Nelson pulls off the arrangements (as per Brown's direction) beautifully. Both of these are supposed to be slow ballads but they get remade into what Bellson described to me as "boogaloo" rhythms (though Brown disagreed with the application of the term for reasons I didn't quite get). The simpler way to say it is that they become funky, mid-tempo tracks that give a once-familiar song a whole new makeover. Personally, I'd probably given the edge to "September Song" as the better of the two but frankly, I think both are great.

This said, i don't want to dress up the album as simply "funky big bang jazz!" without acknowledging that while Brown certainly wanted to bring a funk element into the project, there are some songs, especially the excellent "That's My Desire" which are all soul and do a great job of showcasing Brown's versatile vocal talents.

As for that bonus content, here's a few based on my interviews with James Brown, Christian McBride and Louie Bellson:

James Brown on how he thought Bellson's big band performed compared to his own band:
    "It was stiff - I wasn't going to get out [of a big band] what I [could] put together [on my own] because they could make the quick turns and quick hits. [The big bang] swang, I didn't want them to swing, I wanted them to CHOP, BAH, DAH, BAH BAM, you know."
(Just to note: Brown was "very, very pleased" with the band but the specific question was how ddi they perform compared to Brown's normal stage band).

Christian McBride on the challenges of writing new arrangements because Nelson's originals were lost:
    "’ I hired a guy named Ed Palermo who’s a brilliant musician and arranger, he does the Frank Zappa Big Band in New York, he transcribed all of the charts off the album, which was pretty incredible, because the horns weren’t recorded very well. Listening to the original masters when we went back to listen to some of that stuff the mics were really far away from the horns so it kind of sounds like they had one mic over each section so it was kind of hard to really hear the individual parts compared to a Sinatra album with Nelson Riddle where everything is crystal clear. Considering that he did a hell of a job."

Louie Bellson on the actual recording sessions that took place in November of 1969:
    "It couldn’t of been any better, because sometimes you do a CD, it can be a great band and the singer is not up to it or the singer is not gelling right. That can happen with the best of them, but this is a case of right from the first note that the band played to the first arrangement, we were in, we all knew this was going to be something great. Oliver played a big part of it. He had a chance to work with James before the recording so a lot of the background was something things that James Brown dictated to Oliver and Oliver knew exactly what he wanted. I think that kind of pre-recording is important, because you have to sit with the artists, especially the arranger to know what kind of background to use or write. That really was 90 per cent of the battle right there."

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