Machine Gun (1974)
Machine Gun/Young Girls Are My Weakness/I Feel Sanctified/The Bump/Rapid Fire/The Assembly Line/The Zoo (The Human Zoo)/Gonna Blow Your Mind/There's A Song In My Heart/Superman
Before they crossed over into the slick, smooth soul ballad market around 1977, The Commodores were first and foremost a solid funk band. This was their debut album, and there isn't an Easy or Three Times A Lady to be found anywhere on it. It is proper funk all the way. For many (often soul/funk purists), this was the best of The Commodores. I know what they mean, I have to say, as there is an invigorating, vibrant, raw funk feel to this early material, but they couldn't half do a good soul ballad in those later years, though.
The opener, Machine Gun, was a big hit, which was slightly surprising as it was an instrumental. It is, however, a sublime piece of clavinet-driven funk. The percussion is infectious and there are some spacey keyboard interjections throughout. This was my first experience of The Commodores, so my early memories of them are of this sort of thing, as opposed to smoochy ballads.
The dodgily-titled Young Girls Are My Weakness sees the vocals arrive on a Parliament-style funker. The vocals are shared between Walter Orange, Thomas McClary and Lionel Richie, who also played keyboards. Another track in knew from a long way back with The Commodores is the insistently funky I Feel Sanctified, which features pounding drums, uplifting vocals, rubber band bass and full, punchy horns.
That wonderful, deep clavinet returns for the thumping funk pop of The Bump, which hit on the latest dance craze which involved dancers bumping posteriors. It is a lively, appealing piece of fun. Rapid Fire is another thoroughly intoxicating, upbeat instrumental. The Assembly Line is a soulful, "message" song in the What's Going On style, but using a more muscular funky backing. There is a great drum solo bit near the end.
The Zoo (The Human Zoo) is in the same vein but it features some buzzy, psychedelic guitar. The brassy funk tempo is turned up big time on the wonderful Gonna Blow Your Mind, which is driven along by some genuinely impressive funky drumming. Some Stevie Wonder style harmonica appears too. Excellent stuff. There's A Song In My Heart and Superman are both lively, uptempo funky pop numbers, the latter having some rhythmic disco passages. This was a really good debut album from a group who would carry on ploughing the funk furrow for two more albums before changing their approach.
Caught In The Act (1975)
Wide Open/Slippery When Wet/The Bump/I'm Ready/This Is Your Life/Let's Do It Right/Better Never Than Forever/Look What You've Done To Me/You Don't Know That I Know/Wide Open (reprise)
This was The Commodores' second album and it featured more robust, pulsating funk of the type that characterised their early career. For the first time, though, some smooth soul ballads also appear to give a sign as to the group's later direction. There was something engagingly ebullient about these early funk/soul albums, however, that makes them eminently listenable. While their first album was full-on funk, there is a diversity on this follow-up that makes it an even better offering and a much underrated one.
Wide Open totally cooks. It is a marvellous, hot slice of brassy, pounding funk with great vocals and a deeper than blue bass line.
Slippery When Wet was an early well-known track for the group, that went on to appear on many of their "best of" compilations. It is a great funk rock track, and I am sure Wild Cherry's Play That Funky Music was based on it, to an extent. The horn/bass/percussion/guitar interplay is outstanding. A true early Commodores funky classic.
The bubbly The Bump, for some reason, was included on their debut album as well as this one. I was never quite sure why this happened. It did so quite a lot in the seventies, particularly on soul albums. I'm sure they weren't short of material. I guess maybe that albums were released so frequently that they could "plug" the latest single on two albums in the hope that it would sell more.
I'm Ready is an upbeat, clavinet-powered instrumental of the sort they were now specialising in. The first of the ballads to appear was Lionel Richie's magnificent This Is Your Life - a superbly orchestrated slow but grandiose ballad. Maybe Richie was on to something here... The song's dramatic feel at times reminds me of their later classic Sweet Love, from the next album, particularly in its rise and fall near the end, Richie's impassioned vocals and his keyboard backing swirls.
Let's Do Right is a most appealing number from Richie's pen, once again. It is soulful, smooth, enticing, yet funky at the same time. The bass line is sublime. Never mind The Commodores in the later, more successful period, this is them at their best, for me.
Better Never Than Forever is superb - an atmospheric slow burner of a soul song, with hints of Isaac Hayes and also The Temptations in it. Continuing the quality is the seductive, insistent, sensual soul/funk of Look What You've Done To Me. Once again, this is a really impressive song, bubbling over with tasty funk flavour.
You Don't Know That I Know is another of the six-minute soul ballads that Lionel Richie was starting to make his own. Give me these over Hello any day. They are majestic pieces of velvety, yearning but effortless soul. Once more, Isaac Hayes's influence is there, Barry White too, but Richie had a knack for a catchy melody and hook that made his material different. The album ends with a brief reprise of Wide Open. As with the other early Commodores albums, you simply won't be disappointed with this.