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.
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.
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.
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.
The unimaginatively-titled Commodores was another album that saw the group continue their gritty brand of funky pop, concentrating far more on the funk and less on the slick ballads.
Won't You Come Dance with Me is a brassy funky soul number to open with, with half funky bits and half soulful balladry. It has some really nice funky parts to it. Squeeze The Fruit is also a funky grinder of track. Funny Feelings is a sumptuous serving of typically mid-late seventies soul-funk, full of brassy interjections, deep vocals and that irresistible and lush funky beat.
Heaven Knows is a sweet Lionel Richie ballad of the type he did so well. It still breaks out into funkiness in places, though, in line with the album's general feel. Zoom (not the Fat Larry's Band song) is more of an archetypal slow Richie ballad, one of those that they dragged out for over six minutes. Yes, they are ok, but I do feel that they could’ve shaved a minute or two off them. It would have made the tracks more concise, in the lengthy format they are somewhat sprawling. Actually, that’s a bit unfair, as it is still a sublime song. It has a lovely, deep and resonant sound to it as well. The funk is back on the muscular groove of Brick House, a proper piece of funk about a woman who is built like, well, a brick house, or a brick shithouse as they say in the UK. “That lady’s stacked - that’s a fact....”. Even funkier is the glorious slow thump of Funky Situation, enhanced by a killer guitar solo. Can it get funkier? Actually, yes. Check out the pounding Patch It Up. It is one of those so funky it hurts tracks.
In a different style now, Easy ends the album and is now an iconic number, getting continued play on radio and used in TV trailers and advertisements. It is a truly great song and takes me instantly back to the summer of 1977. Yes, I still sing along with Lionel Richie's "oooh" bit just before playing my air guitar solo. I love everything about the song - it’s perfection, one of my favourite songs of all time.
The Commodores - Natural High (1978)
Hot on the heels of the previous year’s funky offering, The Commodores gave us more with an album that became their first number one. 1977-78 was the height of their popularity. Easy and Three Times A Lady were as much a memory for me of those years as any punk record, would you believe.
Fire Girl is a pleasant piece of funky pop that continues the group’s desire to be just as funky as they are balladeers. The funk doesn’t let up on the cookin’ X-Rated Movie, either. Flying High is also funky, but in a breezier, poppier sort of way. Time for a ballad? You bet. Make it a good one then. Oh yes - one of the best romantic songs of all time and one that doesn’t really need an introduction. Three Times A Lady is just wonderful, although I have to say that I was brought up on the original “single version” so I find that the extended one here actually sounds a bit disjointed. Normally I prefer the longer versions, but here I will plump for the bite-sized one. Oh, and I just love how Richie enunciates “twiiiccce”.
After getting all loved-up, the brassy punch of Such A Woman brings us back to funky reality but we soon get all late night smoochy again on the delicious Richie ballad Say Yeah. I Like What You Do is a heavy duty funker in true Commodores style - they are often overlooked in discussions of funk, which was unfair as they undoubtedly had the funk. Visions is a Stevie Wonder meets Bill Withers soulful, slow number to finish with. Of these two excellent funky albums, I think I prefer the slightly deeper groove and bassier sound of the first of them.
Lionel Richie - Can't Slow Down (1983)
Lionel Richie only actually released three successful solo albums at the height of his popularity in the mid-eighties, and this one, Con’t Slow Down, from 1983, was his own equivalent to Thriller, being packed full of hits and appearing in the music collections of many people who owned less than ten albums. It was not surprising, though, as it is a superbly crafted and produced piece of slick, appealing pop-soul. Yes, it lacks the credibility of Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield or Stevie Wonder, but as pure enjoyable soulful music with a wide appeal goes, it gets little wrong. It was more poppy than ballady as its predecesor was and thus appealed to a wide audience.
The highlights, of course, are its superb hit singles - the exuberant and melodic Paul Simon-ish party fun of All Night Long (All Night) (those brackets were so important); the sumptuous romantic strains of Penny Lover and Stuck On You; Hello, with its iconic blind student sculpture video; the rocking Running With The Night and the slick, immaculately-produced Michael Jackson-esque funk-pop of the title track, Can’t Slow Down. Love Will Find A Way is a sumptuous, typical piece of late night early eighties soul. Dim those lights now.... The Only One continues in the same vein - beautifully melodic and laid-back, sublimely romantic. These are very much songs for twenty-somethings and I was lucky to be that age when this album came out. It was easy to dismiss this album in po-faced style as one that lacks proper credibility. I say bollocks to that - I can’t listen to All Night Long and fail to enjoy it. Classy stuff, a masterpiece of its kind.
Other fine tracks from his other two successful albums, Lionel Richie (1982) and Dancing On The Ceiling (1986) are the ballad Truly and the funky pop of Serves You Right from the former and the lively, hooky Dancing On The Ceiling and Say You, Say Me from the latter.