Wednesday, February 28, 2007

C.D. Review; Spanky Wilson with The Quantic Soul Orchestra- I'm Thankful (Ubiquity)

This is a strong new recording from an inter-generational collaboration. The Quantic Soul Orchestra who provide the music on this new Spanky Wilson c.d. were recruited in L.A. for a week of recording by Quantic, A.K.A. Will Holland. Holland has released numerous remixes and original projects over the last five years and is one of the more prolific new producers to have amassed so much output so far in this century.
Spanky Wilson grew up in Philadelphia, which she left for L.A. in 1967. Apart from fifteen years spent living in France, Spanky has remained in L.A. for most of her singing career. Her powerful voice on sixties songs like the rare "You" and her recently reissued 1968 cover of "Sunshine of Your Love" have endeared her to serious soul collectors for many years, but following a series of well received live performances with the Quantic Soul Orchestra, this latest outing should attract the same expanding crowd who have embraced fellow ladies of soul Bettye Lavette and Sharon Jones.
Spanky's singing is still top notch, and the playing on I'm Thankful is funky in an Earthy, spare mood. The backing tracks all feature a rock solid rhythm section pounding behind sparsely arranged horn lines and subtly embellished with some chicken scratch guitar playing. The J.B.'s are clearly being invoked throughout, especially on the two two-part songs, "Don't Joke With A Hungry Man" and "I'm Thankful", which opens and closes this disc.
"That's How It Is" is a resigned look back at Hurricane Katrina and it's ongoing aftermath. The music is almost light-hearted for such a sad song, which adds to its sense of resignation.
"I Don't Need This Trouble" is a good soul-shouter in the spirit of the ladies of James Brown's sixties revues, but the highlight on this c.d. must be "Waiting For Your Touch", with its bouncy-but-brooding sensibility.
The Quantic Soul Orchestra provide a strong, solid backing for Spanky Wilson. Funk music shouldn't be tweaked much with studio techniques which all too often either disco-fy or suck the life out of raw funk. Quantic/ Will Holland seems to appreciate this, and his production is subtle. His previous work with Sharon Jones suggests he has a good feel for the funk, and he is thankfully willing to maintain a polished sound that isn't too slick for its own good.

C.D. Review; Soulshaker Volume 3 (Record Kicks)

The is the third installment of new funk cuts to be compiled by Milan-based label Record Kicks. Some European labels have shown at least as much dedication to carrying the funk torch into this millennium as American labels-of-love like Daptone and Ubiquity.
There is a variety of funk on this collection, but happily there are fewer House-inspired moments than other discs covering new funk. The English singer Alice Russell is the hottest voice on this volume in the Soulshaker series. The disc's opening cut, "Transcend Me" (with The Bamboos) has a hot Marva Whitney influenced delivery, but her controlled singing on "Pushin' On" (backed by the Quantic Soul Orchestra this time) shows Alice is not a skilled copy-cat, but an inspired singer in full control of her powerful voice.
A couple of these songs like "La Valla" by Bronx River Parkway and the Sweet Vandals' "Do It Right" have already popped up on other recent compilations, but Soulshaker Volume 3 still contains a solid hour of funk culled from enough singles that aren't the easiest to find, and which require a turn table to enjoy. At an hour in length, this could have been a little longer, but there is still enough funk on here to go around. There are a few new acts brought to my attention on this compilation, which alone makes this volume worthwhile.
"Ratpack" by Big Daddy Moochin' features some Eddie Harris style honking over a solid rhythm. The Soldiers of Twilight's "Believe" has some nifty, almost Latin-sounding piano licks, and there are a few other pleasant surprises on here. There are also a couple of dependable purveyors of new funk, by way of The Budos Band and Breakestra. Soulshaker Volume 3 is a strong collection which might not be indispensable, but if you are on the look-out for new funk, this is a great disc to check.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

C.D. Review; Intoxica! Strange and Sleazy Instrumental Sounds From the SoCal Suburbs (Ace)

The English label Ace Records have undertaken an intriguing project for fans of 1960's instrumental rock; reissuing long lost singles and previously unreleased gems from the obscure 1960's Downey label's recording studio.On top of that, the sounds on Intoxica! travel well beyond the scope of surf music, which traditionally dominates compilations of 1960's rock instrumentals. The small, family run record label's master tapes collected for this series of reissues, starting with Intoxica! is Downey Records, based in the back of a record store in the L.A. suburb of Downey. Once upon a time, America was full of such tiny, independent labels. Few of these labels were especially profitable, but they seemed to be an efficient meeting point for creative entrepreneurs and unknown musicians. Regional sounds flourished in this atmosphere, before consolidation of the radio and recording businesses led to fewer, more homogenized music trends, like California soft rock in the seventies.

As compiler Brian Nevill describes in the liner notes, the store in question, Wenzel's Music Town, was in operation long after the Downey label stopped releasing records. A 1978 visit to the store revealed the master tapes were being stored in a bathroom in the record store. Some 13 years later, Brian Nevill interviewed the record store's proprietors for Goldmine Magazine and now, fifteen years after that interview, the bathroom-vault of Downey Records can at last be enjoyed by anyone with the inclination to dig into these instrumental romps.

Although Downey's biggest hit record was the surf hit "Pipeline", R&B and Latin tinged jams were popular among these musicians, too. This first installment of the Downey Records story affirms this notion with its emphasis on some unusual sounding instrumentals. Some of these would fit in on one of the "Incredibly Strange Music" volumes, but the tunes are always approachable if not easily danceable. While Brian Nevil stresses surf was not the beginning and end of California sixties instrumentals, that is still the most prevalent sound on Intoxica. The best known track on here the Revels' "Comanche", revived for the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1994. One hint as to how ubiquitous surf music was in this milieu is in the bands' names and the titles of their instrumentals; the Revels, Rumblers, Hustlers, Hindus and Blazers have tracks with names like "Intoxica", "Eight Ball", "Bandido", "Frenzy" and "Comanche". Fasten your seat belts.

The killer opening cut and title tracks from the Revels is a hard surf number, which sets the tone for Intoxica! with the sound of drinks being poured. We hear a a girl's laughter before a male voice solemnly declares "Intoxica". The sounds of laughter cut in between horn leads over a solid rhythm.Many of the quintessentially Surf Music tracks on this collection employ a few weird elements besides the popular sound effects. There are early forays into guitar effects enabled by novel (in these early days) devices like the fuzz box and various keyboard effects, as well. A great example of these fuzz-boxed guitars comes from one of Ed Burkey's cuts on here, "Night Rider".

Not all the guitar playing on here is aggressive. There are a few jams on here like the Hustlers' "Inertia" which feature another side of surf guitar, that high pitched, gentle poking pioneered by Les Paul.

"Sa Acabo" by the Del Rio Brothers is an upbeat instrumental that wouldn't have been out of place on one of the more soul-laden Fania albums from the late 60's by the likes of Johnny Pacheco or Joe Bataan.

The R&B influence on these musicians is most apparent in the horn playing. Junior Walker must have been a huge inspiration when songs like "Shotgun" and "Cleo's Mood" topped the charts in 1965. The Chuck Higgins tracks are probably the most soulful sounding cuts on Intoxica! with "Water Wheel" and "Night Scene", with its jazzy piano leads.

A suburban Californian take on the exotic Middle East is represented with a couple of exciting numbers, like the tingling slow burner "Sound of Mecca" from the Blazers, and Ginny and the Gallions' "Hava Nagila" recalling a B-movie scene complete with belly dancers and a barbecue in the Sultan's tent. Ginny and the Gallions actually made the trip to Downey's studios from their Las Vegas base.

There are a few other tracks that stand out for their sense of adventure. The percussion playing on the Hindus' "Theme of Etiquette" and the string arrangement on "The Ghost of Mary Meade Part 2" both come to mind. On the latter tune, the strings push the Muzak-envelope for their syrupy, ephemeral sound, but the horn playing lends a jazzy, punchier counterpoint that makes this an interesting contribution from Little Caesar and the Ark Angels. The closing track on Intoxica! concludes the collection with a classic, special effects laden (think "Lost In Space") 1960's take on the Space Age. "Space Battle" is credited to Stories In Sound, whose straight-forward rhythm section and boogie piano is "modernized" with what could be a theremin,* ending this compilation on an optimistic, experimental note.

Intoxica! is a fun collection, and one which is both easily enjoyed by casual fans of (predominantly Surf) sixties instrumentals and serious collectors alike. The material is strong throughout, six previously unreleased songs do not stand out as obvious outtakes. One cut, Ginny and the Gallions' take of the "Third Man Theme" sounds like a live recording which leaves one curious as to what other live recordings, if any, exist among the Downey Records tape reels used to create this series from Ace Records. Using original studio tapes is always preferable when possible, and Intoxica! is no exception; the sound quality is terrific. At almost seventy minutes, there was certainly room for a little more music on this compilation, but the running time is respectable for a c.d. and on the lean side for a double record. The material is strong throughout, so cutting the release off at 26 tracks is hardly an egregious shortfall.

*- The Theremin is an early electronic instrument whose eerie tone was popular in horror movies and some rather experimental music in the early twentieth century, before falling out of popularity. Its last use in an international hit song must have been the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations".

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Lee Fields- Stand Up (7" Record) (Daptone)

This single was released last spring. I am not aware of a full length release from Lee Fields since this song. It's divided into two short parts like a lot of late sixties and early seventies James Brown singles. Once again, Brooklyn's Daptone Records are excelling in the field of delivering new funk.
This single features Daptone label mates Neal Sugarman (Sugarman 3 leader and sax-man), some greasy funk from Dave Guy's trumpet, and Al Street on guitar. It's another Lee Fields soul shouter in the spirit of James Brown, with a slow, bubbling background spread over the two sides. Side B is a continuation of the song rather than an instrumental take.

Willie Bobo- Lost and Found (Concord- Piquante)

This came out in the fall of 2006. The tapes were from a stash discovered at Willie Bobo's widow's place, by their son Eric who struggled against his mother's misgivings to push these tapes through to the light of day.
Willie Bobo was a well known percussionist who blended soul with his Latin boogaloo, creating some very funky albums for Verve and other labels through the years. Everything on Lost and Found was recorded between 1970 and 1976. In 1996, his percussionist son Eric found the tapes in a closet, and spent a decade digitizing the tapes and preparing them for release. There are happily no over dubs on here, although session credits for the other players would have been most welcome. On the other hand, this information might not have been available to Eric, either. Consequently, for instance, one can only guess who is the "Steve" on trumpet on the last song (named by Willie during the song itself), or whom else was playing with Willie on these recordings. The cover features a tape box, and there are family pictures in the package, suggesting the omission of session credits was not due to laziness. The disc runs for almost an hour, and there is no filler on here.
Many of the tracks are instrumentals, but there are some songs featuring soulful singing in English, like "Pretty Lady" and "Fairy Tales For Two".
The upbeat opening song is sung in Spanish. It has a funkier bass presence, like Pucho's records rather than the more laid back Fania Records approach to recording Latin music during the same period. The following cut is one of Willie's hits, "Broasted Or Fried". This is a different version from the popular version covered by the likes of Santana. "Ci Ci" is one of the funkier jams on this collection. It starts of with a gentle two minutes, but then more percussion is added and the whispered vocals kick in.
"Pretty Lady" is an other deceptive cut, starting like a mellow Ripple tune, which steadily builds intensity as more percussion enters the song. If it was faster, it could probably have been a Spanish disco hit, but the music sways with too much funk to give in to the commerciality of the day.
"Lost Years" sounds like a lost CTI take of a Blaxploitation movie theme, with spare horn arrangements punching through the thick base provided by rock steady drumming. "Soul Foo Young" is another slow funk jam, which captures Willie in a steady groove.
Lost and Found concludes with a soft love song called "A Little Tear". It is one of those love songs preceded by a monologue, which a number of well known artists were doing in the early seventies; James Brown, Bobby Womack, and of course Isaac Hayes. In "A Little Tear", Willie describes the sort of songs he likes singing to himself and his family in private moments, before thanking Ray Gilbert for writing the song and giving it to Willie. This is a hot Willie Bobo album, which stands on its own, rather than a rag tag collection of obviously unfinished jams that could only appeal to an artist's die-hard fans.