Saturday, February 14, 2009

posted by O.W.

(originally written for Side Dishes)

Don't say I'm not romantic or anything but as we're about to get buried underneath an avalanche of saccharin lovey-dovey-ness because of Valentine's Day, I thought it was fair to point out that, really, the best love songs are about falling out of love, not into it. New love is great and blah blah blah but nothing says passion and desperation like heartache does. That's why, for V-Day, I threw together a special Tears On Your Pillow set of songs for those who know that no love is so sweet as that which you no longer have.

William Bell: I Forgot To Be Your Lover
From Bound to Happen (Stax, 1968).

I don't know if you can properly call this single "unsung" considering that it appeared on two different William Bell albums and was covered by Jaheim a few years back but to me, it's always a bit of a sleeper song, certainly nowhere near as well-known as Bell's early hit, "You Don't Miss Your Water." Regardless, it has one of the most memorable opening guitar lines I've ever heard, ringing with a melancholy that suffuses the entire song as Bell bemoans his lack of attention and affection.

Darondo: Didn't I
From Let My People Go (Ubiquity, 2006)

An erstwhile singer turned pimp turned talk show host, the Bay Area's Darondo was an enigma until recently, when aficionados of his early '70s sweet soul and funk singles rediscovered him living in Sacramento and helped to resurrect his career. "Didn't I" is the crown jewel of the handful of singles he recorded back in the day, a super-stripped down yet incredibly powerful ballad of wistfulness with just a hint of desperation. Makes you wonder how anyone could have left someone who could sing with that kind of intimacy and intensity.

Lezli Valentine: Love on a Two Way Street
From 7" single (All Platinum, 1968).

Long before Sylvia Robinson put together "Rapper's Delight" in the late 1970s, she was a successful singer and songwriter in the '60s, creating a massive R&B empire in New Jersey. She helped pen "Love on a Two Way Street," a memorable ballad which makes good use of its transportation metaphors (how often does one get to say that?). It was a decent hit for the Moments but originally recorded by Lezli Valentine, a little-known singer signed to Robinson's All Platinum imprint. The two versions are very similar, musically, but while the Moments' falsetto approach works well enough, it's different hearing an actual woman's voice tackle it, especially one as rich and nuanced as Valentine's.

Binky Griptite: You're Gonna Cry
From 7" single (Daptone, 2008)

Just to show you that soul artists today can still knock out a good tearjerker in the tradition of the classic R&B troubadours, the Dap-Kings' guitarist, announcer and emerging vocalist Binky Griptite turns in a beautiful, slow burner of a break-up tune. Make sure to listen to the end as Griptite delivers a coup de grace of a line.'s chilly!

The Kaldirons: To Love Someone (That Don't Love You)
From Twinight's Lunar Rotation (Numero Group, 2007)

One of the rarest singles ever released on Chicago's incredible R&B label Twinight, "To Love Someone" is one of those songs that deserved to have gotten much more shine that it did in its day. It's a masterful, midtempo arrangement of strings and hints of piano, meshing perfectly with the soaring, falsetto voices of the Kaldirons who lament the impossibility of unrequited love. I have to admit - the song feels surprisingly uplifting despite its dour subject matter and it's one of the few "love lost" songs that I can honestly describe as "feel good."

Nancy Holloway: Hurts So Bad
From Hello Dolly (Concert Hall, 1967)

To close out, I went with the hammer blow that French singer Nancy Holloway delivers on her cover of Little Anthony and the Imperials' 1965 hit, "Hurts So Bad." Producer Daniel Janin gives the tune a slight funk makeover with those dramatic basslines and brass section but it's Holloway who is the undeniable force of nature here, pouring what feels like a lifetime of desperation into a little less than four minutes.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

posted by O.W.

The Spinners: It's a Shame
The Spinners: I've Got To Find Myself a Brand New Baby
From 2nd Time Around (V.I.P., 1971)

(Originally written for Side Dishes)

I've been thinking of the Spinners a lot lately, especially since writing about the Philly Int'l boxset which includes a few of the group's big hits with Thom Bell such as "I'll Be Around" and "Could It Be I'm Falling In Love." The group, originally formed in Detroit all the way back in the mid-1950s, charted an interesting course through the R&B world. Considering that their first #1 hit ("I'll Be Around") didn't come until 18 years (and 3 personnel changes) later, you have to admire their perseverance - one that, unlike other groups who never succeeded despite years of struggle, paid off handsomely for the group by the mid-1970s when they rattled off a string of major chart-toppers, especially their duet with Dionne Warwick, "Then Came You."

However, my first introduction to the Spinners came right before their "golden era." They found their biggest success with Atlantic Records (home to Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway and many other soul legends at the time) but previous to that, were part of the Motown family. True, they didn't flourish as much during their stint with Motown (signed to the subsidiary V.I.P. label) but they did produce one magnificent hit which remains, by far, my favorite Spinners song of all time: "It's a Shame."

To be honest, I first heard "It's a Shame" thanks to the Monie Love rap song by the same name which samples it. And once you hear the original, you can see why it was such an enticing thing to sample - that guitar melody is so indelible but beyond such a powerful hook, the complete composition is bursting with all kinds of musical magic, including the multi-part harmonies and sophisticated arrangement. I didn't know this at the time - but looking back, shouldn't have been surprised - that Stevie Wonder wrote the song, which perhaps explains part of what made it so damn good. (Note: Stevie's contributions to other artists' is just one of the many things that make him one of the greatest talents of the last 50 years).

"It's a Shame" appeared on the Spinners' very last album for V.I.P. before jumping ship to Atlantic: 2nd Time Around. It's interesting to think what might have happened had they stayed with the Motown family (not that Atlantic gave them a massively different sound) since the direction the group was moving in on this album could have put them in line with other groups like the Four Tops or Temptations who were also evolving at a rapid pace in the early '70s with Motown. One could imagine what a producer like Norman Whitfield might have done with the group or the sweet sound of The Corporation who helped make the Jackson 5 so successful.

Just to give listeners a sense of how Motown was shaping the group in that moment, I also included "I've Got To Find Myself a Brand New Baby" from the same album; it wasn't one of their better known songs off the LP but I've always liked its snap and you can definitely hear the Motown influence resounding through this particular song.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

posted by O.W.

Mary Wells: Two Lovers
Marvin Gaye: I'll Be Doggone
The Supremes: The Happening
Eddie Kendricks: Shoeshine Boy
T.G. Shepherd: Devil in the Bottle
Brenda Holloway: You've Made Me So Very Happy
All from The Complete Motown #1s (Motown, 2008)

As for many children of baby boomers, Motown was my introduction to soul music thanks to what I'd hear my dad listen to in the car. But even though I - like millions of Americans - would become intimately familiar with Motown's train of hits over the years, it took much longer for me to actually, truly appreciate the label's musical aesthetic.


I think partially that's because even though Motown was my entryway into R&B, it was Southern soul - Al Green, Aretha Franklin with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Stax, etc. - that was my first love when it came to rhythm and blues. And while the whole Detroit vs. Memphis dichotomy is overbaked (the two unquestionably inspired one another through the years), for a long time, by throwing my camp in with Soulsville, that meant a frostier relationship to Hitsville. Motown's sheer ubiquity certainly didn't help, especially when I wanted my musical tastes to run deeper than The Big Chill soundtrack.

But once you get past the snobbery of not wanting to like what a billion other people like, it's hard to deny the beauty and polish of Motown, whether you're talking about the incredible songwriting from folks like Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder to Holland-Dozier-Holland's expert writing and production to the musical mastery and output of the Funk Brothers. Alas, I don't have the space to rap rhapsodic about the complexities of Motown's grandeur, but you can read up on your own.

Just in time for the holidays, Motown has put out an impressive new, 10 CD boxset called The Complete Motown #1s which compiles, from 1960's "Shop Around" (The Miracles) to 2000's "Bag Lady" (Erykah Badu), all 191 of Motown's chart-topping hits (plus 10 bonus songs). All this is packaged inside a stunning box designed to look like the original house Motown called its home. Good packaging may feel like a lost art these days but I have to say; this one knocks it out the park.

This said, I do have some nitpick critiques to make and I'll just get these out of the way first. To begin, organizing an anthology by focusing exclusively on #1 hits is normally the compilation equivalent of preaching to the choir. You're basically selling people the songs they already know. It's lucrative, to be sure (just ask these guys), but musically speaking, it's not meant to be adventurous.

Moreover though, it also raises the question of how you define what a "#1 hit" is and the compilers deployed some creative means in order to arrive at 191. Most of these songs were #1 on either the Billboard pop or R&B charts and that's perfectly reasonable, but at times, they also dip into other magazines like Cash Box and Record World when the Billboard charts are not, shall we say, cooperative? The biggest stretches are for songs like the Commodores' "Lady (You Bring Me Up)" which was #1 in the late summer of New Zealand. At that point, you have to wonder if they're just trying to pad the numbers.

That said, in all fairness, this boxset isn't trying to be anything more than it is: the greatest of greatest hits collections and Motown hasn't exactly slumped in plumbing the full depths of their catalog through other means, including the incredibly, exhaustive "Complete Singles" series, which (so far) has stretched from the first volume which covered 1959-61 up through the upcoming volume 11a which is just for the first half of 1971. (These series also fill in my other beef with the Complete #1s: the lack of liner notes in the booklet (which does have great photos and full discographic info). That's not to mention the equally compelling Cellarful of Motown series of unreleased and rare vault selections.

As for the upsides of the boxset, the first is that despite having what you would think is song after song of "obvious" hits, it's easy for even a seasoned Motown fan to get reacquainted with more than a few songs that weren't always as monster as, say, The Supremes' "Baby Love" or the Temptations' "My Girl." For example, I had forgotten about how excellent Mary Wells' smoky ballad, "Two Lovers" was or how Marvin Gaye's "I'll Be Doggone" was so subtly funky and melodic at once. And then there were songs I had never heard before, including The Supreme's "The Happening" (a #1 pop hit in May 1967) or Eddie Kendricks' "Shoeshine Boy", a slick 1975 R&B hit. You also get the idea that the compilers probably had a kick in including Motown's two country hits, both by T.G. Shepherd who recorded for the Motown subsidiary, Melodyland and scored #1s in 1974 and '75.

Appealing to my desire to want to go beyond just the top of the charts, I appreciate the bonus tracks, which were all Motown songs recorded by other artists who then hit #1 with them. This includes a few songs which you would have thought were #1s originally, such as Martha and Vandellas' "Dancing in the Streets" (which later would become a #1 hit - albeit done astoundingly cheesy - for David Bowie and Mick Jagger in 1985). But that also included a few songs that I didn't realize originated with Motown, such as "You've Made Me So Very Happy" which I've always associated with Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1969 but was first recorded by Brenda Holloway in '67 (and done beautifully, I may add).

Analyzed by chronology, one of the things that surprised me about the Complete #1s was how quickly the comp is done with the '60s, which I've always considered to be the label's halycon era; by midway through Disc 3 (and this is a 10 disc set, remember), we're already into the '70s. Of course, those first three discs also contain probably the best known Motown hits within America's collective memory, in terms of what we think of when we think "Motown."

I was also struck at how strongly the sound of Motown shifted even as early as 1969 or so. New artists like the Jackson 5 with "I Want You Back" or producers like Norman Whitfield, working with the Temptations were radically shifting the style of Motown, partially in a nod to the changing sounds around them but also as a result of infusing the label with new blood. Equally striking is what ends up missing from Motown's 1970s era - many songs you might associate with the label's talented roster weren't, in fact, ever #1 singles, such as Stevie Wonder's "Love's In Need Of Love Today", arguably one of the greatest composition he ever recorded. Likewise, while Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" is duly represented, he doesn't appear very often after that (only twice) but it's not as if Gaye's career ended in 1973. What you realize is that Motown's great achievement wasn't based around singles any more (even though the label enjoyed a slew of those still); it was really about albums at that point - a quality of Motown's greatness that, unfortunately, this comp can't capture given its basic concept.

This has to be contrasted against the vast breadth of the offerings though - even if just looking at singles isn't the most accurate way to appreciate Motown's evolution, it is awe-inspiring to realize that the same label that brought you the Marvelette's "Please Mr. Postman," would be the same one to also drop Obama's favorite, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" by Stevie Wonder, Rick James' "Superfreak" and Boyz II Men's "End of the Road."

In the end, the Complete #1s is designed for the populist Motown fan, the one who will be drawn to its consolidation of 40 years of chart-topping smashes nicely boxed (and seriously, it is nicely boxed) into a neat, simple package. Ideally though, it's meant to serve as a starting point rather than end. Once you cross the recreated door on the box's front, it's easy enough to lose yourself within Motown's sprawling house of hits.

(Originally posted to Side DIshes)

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

posted by O.W.

While you're waiting for the next post on Soul SIdes, don't miss:

  • Captain Planet waxing on more summer madness for his official Summer Songs post.

  • Two new Side Dishes posts, one on the new Calypsoul compilation and one on one of my favorite albums this year, the awesome Brotherman soundtrack (there will be a post on this album for Soul Sides proper soon, complete with giveaway!).
  • Last but not least, my June set for Dublab - "Under Covers" - is now available on their Dubstream and should soon be posted to their archives. More covers!

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  • Thursday, August 07, 2008

    posted by O.W.

    Been out of town for a bit (shout out to both Big City and Good Records in NYC!) but wanted to quickly catch folks up on some posts you might have missed:

    • Karen Tongson put together an excellent, eclectic Summer Songs post.
    • Adam Mansbach also dropped some summer cuts for us, with an appealing mix of hip-hop, jazz and soul.
    • I wrote about the new Jackson Conti album, plus a revisit of "California Soul" for my new weekly Vibe blog, Side Dishes.

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    Tuesday, July 01, 2008

    posted by O.W.

    I've started a new weekly column with called Side Dishes. It's basically a "Song of the Week"-style column meshed with Soul Sides-style content. Even though the first post crosses over with some of stuff I wrote about the other week, in general, I'll try to keep the two distinct. Sides Dishes will also be more focused on music that's still in print (either as reissues, anthologies, etc.). Cruise on over and add Side Dishes to your subscription list; I think Soul Sides fans will enjoy it. summer songs post from Roberto Gyemant. Four great selections by one of Latin music's sharpest new chroniclers and taste-makers.

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