After Cody ChesnuTT gained some modest success based on his lo-fi “bedroom” recordings on The Headphone Masterpiece, he succumbed to some of the vices of (semi) celebrity. It took almost a decade for this next recordings to appear, the EP Black Skin No Value, followed by Landing on a Hundred a full decade after his debut. His second full-length album is a hi-fi collection of studio-recorded retro soul tunes. The influences are obvious — Marvin Gaye, especially, but also Curtis Mayfield and others. The opener, “‘Till I Meet Thee,” for instance, sounds like a successful meeting of the light soul of Marvin Gaye and the pop reggae of Peter Tosh. Unfortunately, the songwriting flags a bit as the album wears on. There is some decedent stuff here in the first part of the album, but overall things are a bit middling.
Compass is Jamie Lidell’s best album to date. It is also his most adventurous and simply weird one. He’s still doing the soul music thing (realized most fully on Jim). He’s also still mixing in electronics (which first garnered him attention with Multiply). But what is different here is how he pulls those elements together. There are snippets of melody, and catchy rhythms. But those don’t dominate. Instead the music shifts unpredictably. It kind of denies the easy satisfaction of sticking with any of those elements across an entire song. Instead, he emphasizes dissonance, demanding adjustments, incongruity, and meanings that are only implied through the dynamic movement of the music. Even free jazz horn riffs appear briefly. There isn’t really a clear term for this, but it is the same style used by artists from the Brazilian tropicalistas to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Beck (a co-producer here).
“I Can Love Again” revels in the sort of stuff Prince would do an B-sides and obscure deep album cuts, wandering around a beat, with rambling musings heavily distorted with affected voice modulations. “The Ring” is more of the same (almost fit for a latter-day version of The Black Album). “Coma Chameleon” is not only a pun on the old Culture Club hit, it also has the sort of grinding low-end horn charts that fueled Radiohead‘s “The National Anthem.” “Enough’s Enough” is one of the songs closest to straightforward soul, of the bright, disco-era variety. Hopefully this conveys a bit of the range exhibited by Compass.
Some of this is mediocre (“You Are Waking”). But for the most part this is more consistent from beginning to end that anything Lidell had done to this point. As a number of soul music legends ventured into electronica around this time (Bobby Womack, Gil Scott-Heron), Lidell was leading the pack in terms of innovation.
Another posthumous Redding album. But a fairly good one. It may not have a trio of songs as good as “I’m a Changed Man,” “Look at the Girl” and “Direct Me,” but on the whole it is better than the immediately prior vault-clearing album Love Man. The title track is still up there with Redding’s best. Some songs use an effective tactic of having the low-end bass and organ play slowly, while the vocals and guitar play at a faster tempo, giving the impression of being ahead of everything around them.
Otis was a truly unique pop singer. He largely avoided both vibrato and melisma. His style was southern soul. He took rural elements and made them palatable to urban audiences without undermining the gritty energy that gave his voice such power. If there is a comparison — pardon how far afield this seems — it might be the actor/dancer Gene Kelly. Both men had a kind of husky, athletic physical presence that they used in surprisingly nimble ways. They also both knew showman’s tricks, and were ready and able to dazzle audiences with routines that were entertaining without being condescending. What both did was also the kind of stuff that, theoretically, anybody could have done. Singing and dancing just take practice, right? Of course, they were each uncommonly talented. But it wasn’t just a raw talent. They both kind of found their niche. Which is to say that equal talents that were “out of time” and not in the right place at the right time (or of the “right” race, gender, etc.) would not be known to history like these men.
In 1977, southern soul was definitely an anachronism. O.V. Wright didn’t have a voice like Otis or Aretha. He had a “preacher” style that was more of a sing-speak approach, with a crackly, nasal tone (Rev. Robert Crenshaw of The Swan Silvertone Singers might be a comparison). But none of that matters. This album has great arrangements and backing. It is southern soul, but it pays a lot of deference to Philly “sweet” soul with its orchestral treatments. This is the template for just about every latter day (male) retro soul singer — Lee Fields, Charles Bradley, etc. No, this isn’t some huge holy grail of soul music, but it’s a good one that really works to earn respect.
Otis Redding died in a plane crash at the height of his career. Though his record label released a number of posthumous albums, Otis’ premature death meant that he left behind a significant amount of recordings that would have been released anyway had he lived. The Immortal Otis Redding actually manages to be one of Redding’s very best studio albums. If The Soul Album was an attempt to modernize Otis’ sound, but was only partly successful at doing so, then The Immortal Otis Redding returns to that approach, but finds more success. There is a more rich and smooth sound here, with fewer elements of raucous 1950s rock n/ roll and R&B. Otis’ voice blends well with the backing music. Side one is nearly perfect. Side two has more to like. In hindsight, though, this relatively short album could have been his single best album if it included some additional songs recorded in 1967 that were released elsewhere, “I’m A Changed Man,” “Direct Me,” “Look at the Girl,” “(“Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “Tell the Truth,” and maybe even the magnificent 1966 outtake “You Left the Water Running.” (If need be, “Champagne and Wine” and “A Waste of Time” might be dropped, though really there was plenty of room for more tracks on the original LP).
Often viewed as an album rushed out by Atlantic Records to capitalize on the success of Aretha’s breakout (and still best) album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. But, really, this is a very solid second-tier Franklin album. It starts off inauspiciously with “Satisfaction” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Some of the other songs feature adequate but rather uninspired string arrangements. Yet “Never Let Me Go” is an effective and modern ballad, and “96 Tears” works pretty well even though a garage rock rave-up hardly would seem like a good song for Aretha to sing. And, of course, the closer “Baby, I Love You” is one of the single best things Aretha ever did.
Two killer songs: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition.” Those are among the most memorable soul recordings of the early 1970s. “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” is a good song too. The rest? Well, there is definitely a lot of pleasant filler, though some of this (“Big Brother,” “Blame It on the Sun”) is maybe even sub-par. As full-length albums go, I find this one a bit overrated. His next two are his best and the one before this is also better. Still, it’s hard to beat those two killer songs!
Soul ’69 is a good but not great album that seems a bit disappointing coming amidst of some of Aretha’s best. One standout track is her version of The Miracles‘ “Tracks of My Tears.” Her vocals are more gut-bucket than Smokey Robinson‘s light and airy singing on the original version. The backing band, mostly veteran jazz players, understandably plays with a slightly jazzy inflection, but the band’s arrangement leans on a kitschy tropical/latin style. Throwing those incongruous elements together surprisingly enough works. “I’ll Never Be Free” is also one of Franklin’s better jazz-styled recordings. The rest is all decent but not especially memorable. As an aside, wouldn’t the utilitarian title Soul ’69 have an entirely different meaning if released a few years later on the heels of Marvin Gaye‘s Let’s Get It On (1973)?
Admittedly, Aretha has never been among my most favorite soul singers. Don’t get me wrong, she is talented and all that. But I think I have finally pinpointed why she never made the top of my favorites list. Really, she was the epitome of liberal compromise in the late 1960s. She represented an ultimately quite fragile meeting of southern and northern elements. Her early career saw her trying to be a jazz singer of sorts, and she was never more than mediocre in that genre. That embodied her pretensions to “northern” culture, presumptively “sophisticated” (something akin to the impossibility of working-class achievement). When her career really took off, she was melding smooth, urban northern music — epitomized by being on Atlantic Records, headquartered in New York City — with southern soul out of the Otis Redding school, mediated by secularized gospel phrasing. If it is unclear why this translates into liberalism, the fact that she performed at both President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 is all the confirmation required. Aretha invokes precisely the sort of “good on paper” liberal aspirations of Obama and Clinton, as a calculated invocation of movements and sub-genre styles already in existence to lay claim to some kind of triangulated coalition. For more circumstantial evidence, look to the way Malcolm X broke away from Aretha’s conservative-liberal father (Rev C.L. Franklin) in the mid-1960s precisely over the issue of compromise/collaboration — Malcolm labeled him a “clown”. I called this sort of liberal compromise “fragile” for good reason. Look at Aretha’s albums during her prime years on Atlantic and they are quite uneven. Some are clearly trying too hard to make obscure connections. The semi-flops (This Girl’s In Love With You) reveal how dependent she was on arrangements. Either Aretha had no sense when it came to putting together records, succeeding largely by dumb luck, or, more likely, she had little say in making albums or (most likely) was too easily convinced to engage in calculated appeals to “cross-over” demographics (“hey, do a version of this song that [insert social demographic here] is sure to like!”).
Spirit in the Dark from 1970 reflected changing times. Black militancy was peaking, but there were simultaneous efforts to accommodate establishment interests in exchange for favored status granted to a few token minority representatives. Which way would Aretha go? Eventually, it would be the latter. But on Spirit in the Dark she tried to stake out a middle ground. While her very best albums (I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Lady Soul) have a deep sound, with prominent bass, organ, and horn sections anchored by saxophones, here the instruments behind her are much more of mid-range pitches. There is a lot of guitar, sometimes with a slight psychedelic edge. The bass is brighter than usual. Sporadic use of organ is buried in the mix, and tends toward higher-pitched stabs. The backing vocals are very orderly, sort-of “proper”, but still with a bit of homespun charm (read: imprecise coordination/synchronization). Gospel techniques are readily deployed, with a very, very light touch. Most importantly, though, Aretha really tries to belt things out when she sings, reaching rather than staying in a familiar comfort zone. “One Way Ticket” is a great example of that. I usually object to calling Aretha a powerful singer, because she drew a lot from gospel where powerful singers are called “housewreckers”. Put Aretha next to gospel icon Mahalia Jackson (perhaps the closest comparison in tone) and no one would point to Aretha as the more powerful singer. But purely on her own terms, Aretha does sing powerfully here.
Opinion is somewhat divided on this album. Fans of her late-1960s records sometimes see this as falling off in quality, if still a very good record. Others name this as one of her finest. To me, this is the last gasp of her relevance and up there with her best. This is one of the very last (chronologically speaking) southern soul album of note. In just a few short years, with a few notable exceptions like Al Green that prove the rule, almost everything would be “retro” or “neo” southern soul, lacking the kind of authenticity still present here — something cemented by the collapse of Stax Records in the near future. Granted, that authentic sound is hedged against what were clearly changing times, but that is partly why the authenticity remains. (Contrast Sly & The Family Stone‘s Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back, which might be a good example of a fake and inauthentic invocation of the past, ignoring changing circumstance). With Young, Gifted and Black Aretha would throw her lot in with what became known as “identity politics” — a kind of anti-politics based around fear of making offense — then Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) would push her firmly into the gutter of commercial pandering from which she would scarcely escape. But here, Aretha makes an effort to change in order to stay the same. In other words, she adapts to the times in order to try to preserve a little something of the spark that made her very best stuff from the 60s great.
Sly Stone was one of the great pop music producers of his time. Music collectors obsess over Brian Wilson‘s efforts with The Beach Boys. Some even joke that anybody obsessively into record collecting will eventually and inevitably end up listening to the Beach Boys. Those same collectors should devote every bit as much adulation to Sly.
There’s a Riot Goin’ On was a landmark – a dark, murky, angry masterpiece. But that album came out in 1971. It was still the height of black militancy in America. Things were starting to change though. Late in 1971 the Powell Memo was issued, beginning the conservative business backlash against progressive social causes. Even the Black Panthers, one of the most visible militant black organizations, shifted tactics and started to devote energies to electoral politics. For instance, Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973 — just across the Bay from the San Francisco home of Sly & The Family Stone.
Fresh opens with “In Time,” a funky workout that highlights some of the innovations the album establishes. The rhythm section of “The Family Stone” had (mostly) departed. So instead of relying on individual ingenuity and improvisation from each player, Sly uses the song’s structure and arrangement to create its appeal. The horn charts are the best example. In isolation, the horn charts use fairly conventional soul/R&B harmonies. But Sly chops them up. The horn section plays little riffs that don’t seem to resolve fully, interrupted to create a rhythmic emphasis using what is nominally harmonic. There is some sinister sounding organ and short, punchy guitar stabs. Underneath everything is a buoyant, throbbing bass line. The percussion is a combination of a drum machine (a rather new invention) and a real live drummer. Taken all together, the song emphasizes a kind of juggling act between the demands of bland commercial music of the sort that simply perpetuates the status quo. The funkiness of the rhythms of “In Time” are kind of radical. Yet those horn charts are certainly cognizant of an existing social landscape that assigns an established value to them. Sly was synthesizing these two opposing sentiments. It works because of the unique relationships between the instruments in the album’s mix. The drums and bass, and hard syncopated rhythms in general, take a very prominent role. The melodic and harmonic elements, even the lyrics, frequently seem to be fit around the rhythms rather than the other way around, which would be more conventional.
“If You Want Me to Stay” has Sly singing in this great high-pitched, croaking voice, with intentionally stilted and rushed rhythmic phrasing. It may not seem like it on the surface, but this is Sly offering a kind of crypto-autobiographical statement on multiple levels. The song might be said to rely on masking, with one reading being strictly about romantic entanglements (in relation to his future wife Kathleen Silva), but with another reading being about his position as a celebrity musician being pulled in different directions and trying of being a kind of spokesperson for a generation.
The best-known song on the album is undoubtedly the cover of “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be),” with vocals by Rose Stone. The song was song originally popularized by Doris Day in a bright yet rigid reading used in a film.
Fresh was not a complete critical success at the time. It was a huge commercial hit, but not quite as big as immediately prior releases. And that trend continued. Within a few years Sly would start to seem irrelevant. As reviewer yerblues wrote about Sly & The Family Stone’s 1976 album Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back, “If there’s one word that sums up Sly Stone’s approach here, it is capitulation. The originality that had formerly been a hallmark of the group’s recordings is wholly absent here.” In those later years there was more emphasis on commercial success, even if it meant chasing dull fads, and integrity in holding to certain ideals (or a cause) was discarded. If Sly had almost entirely capitulated by 1976, that question was on the table already years earlier. In 1973 his approach was still in flux and not at all settled.
Certainly, there were other soul/R&B acts that faced similar pressures in the early/mid-1970s. Gladys Knight & The Pips‘ Neither One of Us (1973) also develops the sense of conflict and apprehension at a time when black militancy was waning and facing significant defeats. Curtis Mayfield had his best albums behind him by the mid-70s, as the militant urgency of his earlier solo work faded or just seemed out of step. Stevie Wonder might be the best parallel to Sly, using programmed bass in a way that ran in parallel with Sly’s drum machine experiments. Though Stevie managed that by switching between switching between socially conscious material (“Living For the City,” “Pastime Paradise”) and nostalgic and romantic singer-songwriter stuff (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “I Wish”) — with a somewhat greater volume of the latter. Stevie almost had to slip in the former among a sufficient number of the latter. Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Going On (1971) seemed to set the tone for a lot of early 70s soul music. Just a few years later, though, Gaye released Let’s Get It On (1973), a funkier but also more personal album that — great as it is — can be seen as a turn away from broader social movements and toward individual issues. This mirrored Sly’s approach. His next album, Small Talk (1974), would turn toward domestic concerns and away from songs about social consciousness.
The sub-genre of Philly Soul makes another great example of the trends in early 70s soul music. The O’Jays released Ship Ahoy in 1973. It is an album that presents itself as socially-conscious, up to and including a cover image of the band depicted in the hold of a slave ship, yet most of the songs push a staunchly conservative/reactionary agenda, or at least trot out familiar conservative tropes. Take “For the Love of Money.” Its an iconic song, and one of the best-known O’Jays tunes — second only to “Love Train.” It lambasts being “changed” by money, and the ills of an obsession with money. That is an old christian sentiment — bringing to mind how Jesus threw the money-changers out of the temple in Jerusalem. This might almost be seen as an anti-capitalist song. But it isn’t really. It is more about deflecting attention from structural economic inequality and lack of jobs, etc. This is illustrated by another song from Ship Ahoy, “Don’t Call Me Brother.” That song, despite its catchy vocal harmonies, is a lecture in “personal responsibility.” It advocates pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, rugged individualism that suggests individual decision-making is both necessary and sufficient to alter social outcomes and that social and economic issues (poverty, joblessness, incarceration, etc.) are no more than the aggregation of disparate individual decisions, rather than the products of collective and institutional mechanisms that produce, reproduce and transform social and economic relations and relegate individuals to certain positions and limit their scope of free will. “Don’t Call Me Brother” is exactly the sort of conservative philosophy that people like serial rapist Bill Cosby have long advocated (with maximum elitist condescension). It is also precisely the sort of worldview that suggests the black power/freedom movements are irrelevant, and that the status quo is self-justifying and inherently optimal.
So, turning back to Fresh, we have Sly offering up songs like “If It Were Left Up to Me” — with the lyrics, “If it were left up to me / we could put ideas in motion” and “now that it’s left up to me, and you / will you try? / will you try? / I promise from me to you, I will try” — and “Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be).” There is a recognition in these songs of the difficulties facing black militancy, black nationalism, the whole hippie thing, and related causes. Yet there is both determination and perseverance on display in the face of those challenges. Despite perhaps getting worn out from a lifestyle of partying and drugs, and the difficulties of being a public figure, Sly was still fighting for the same causes as on Dance to the Music, Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ on. But at the same time he was aware of all the changing times and circumstances, and those changes are reflected in his music on Fresh. He puts into musical terms a new sense of meaning for the new circumstances around him.
Sly tinkered with this album incessantly, and there are alternate mixes of much of it floating around (including as bonus tracks to a reissue). The result is probably the flat-out funkiest album Sly ever made. It was hugely influential on a lot of musicians. Some fans rate it a little less than some of the preceding albums. I think it is top-shelf stuff, among the essentials. Then again, Sly & The Family Stone are a very formative musical influence for me. Fresh is an album I loved form the first time I heard it, and decades later I still love it. Perhaps I’m a little biased.
Hard to imagine anyone hating this one, but for some this might be one of those game-changer type musical experiences, just as much as Sly’s other best work.