Sunday, 20 September 2020


Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)

Gotta Get Up/Driving Along/Early In The Morning/The Moonbeam Song/Down/Without You/Coconut/Let The Good Times Roll/Jump Into The Fire/I'll Never Leave You

"I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realised that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, 'Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn't, then there's a point to it" - Harry Nilsson

This album was one that, back in 1971-72, a friend of mine’s elder brother owned and I would also see it as I flicked through sleeves in the record shop, looking for Slade and T. Rex. Apart from the big hit single that everyone knows, I have to admit to knowing nothing much about Harry Nilsson, other than that he liked a drink or two and was mates with John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Elton John (I think). It is not surprising, therefore, to see Lennon’s old mucker Klaus Voorman on bass and other early seventies alumni such as Herbie Flowers, Chris Spedding on duty, along with appearances by Caleb Quaye, Bobby Keys and Jim Webb.

Gotta Get Up is a punchy, brassy number that has echoes of Billy Joel about it, for me, while Driving Along is short, lively and very McCartney-esque. Early In The Morning is a blues cover and is done well, with an impressive vocal which sees Nilsson ad-libbing about a waitress saying to him ‘Harry You Sure Look Beat’. The song is a little gem, with a great vibe to it.

The plaintive, gentle tones of The Moonbeam Song is very Lennon-esque, both melodically and lyrically. Even more so is Down - every thing about it screams Lennon to me.

The afore-mentioned hit is, of course, the sublime number one Without You, with its sweeping Paul Buckmaster strings. The other song I knew from the album is the slightly irritating but strangely infectious Coconut. Nilsson had a bit of a wit about him and he displays it here as he repeatedly asks for his bellyache to be cured, giving full instructions about putting lime in coconuts. Actually I also know Let The Good Times Roll, largely because of Slade’s barnstorming 1972 cover of it. Nilsson’s version is slower and bluesier but no less appealing.

The album’s high point is the insistent, brooding bluesy rockout,  Jump Into The Fire, which well and truly kicks ass. It reminds me of David Bowie’s Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed in places and it features some seriously good guitar too. And, a great drum solo backed up by some rumbling Voorman bass runs. I didn’t realise Nilsson could rock like this. Great stuff all round.

In complete contrast is the closer, the maudlin I’ll Never Leave You which sort of ends the proceedings in a slightly understated fashion. The track suffers from too much orchestration for me. This is nit-picking, though, as this is an enjoyable album, but I cannot help but feel it is a bit like a Ringo album. His 73-75 offerings, Ringo and Goodnight Vienna are quite similar, I feel. Nothing wrong with that, though, I like those albums. People say this was Nilsson’s most cohesive work, listening to it, I can understand that. The sound quality is excellent too.

Monday, 14 September 2020

The Grateful Dead

"We're like liquorice. Not everybody likes liquorice, but the people who like liquorice really like liquorice" - Jerry Garcia
The Grateful Dead (1967)
The Golden Road/Beat It On Down The Line/Good Morning Little School Girl/Cold Rain And Snow/Sitting On Top Of The World/Cream Puff War/Morning Dew/New New Minglewood Blues/Viola Lee Blues

"Blues-based tunes played by musicians who came to rhythm late, expanded so they were equally suitable for dancing and for tripping out" - Robert Christgau

I must admit that until recently I had little or no knowledge of "The Dead"'s mighty canon of work. For whatever reason, these rock leviathans had completely passed me by. They came straight out of San Francisco's maelstrom of psychedelia in early 1967, and, although this album is very much one of learning on the hoof it is not without its fresh, vibrant appeal. Actually, I really like it, although I am sure long-time "Dead Heads" dismiss it. It is also, far more of a blues rock album than a psychedelic one, despite its opening blast.

The album starts in short but lively sixties psychedelic rock fashion on The Golden Road - madcap drums, Eastern-style guitar soloing, swirling organ, frantic vocals and a feel of Jefferson Airplane from the same era about it. Some rock 'n' roll follows on Beat It On Down The Line with an even faster pace and a distinctly early Elvis-influenced vocal. This is actually great stuff and a million miles away from the group's later material.

As it was 1967, the blues was still huge in the rock firmament and here we get a great version of the much-covered blues standard, Good Morning Little School Girl, delivered in a slow, brooding, effortlessly bluesy style, with a fine harmonica solo to boot. they sound like The Doors in places on this, particularly at the end. Cold Rain And Snow is a very 1967 number - with more Doors vibes, great drums and organ and a real groovy feel from its outset. I love it. Check out those sixties drum rolls and bass fills.

Sitting On Top Of The World is a no-holds-barred, wonderful serving of breakneck blues rock that has the band sounding like The early Rolling Stones speeded up. Cream Puff War taps in to the anti-war sentiments of the time on muscular organ and drum slice of short but aware rock. That guitar sound is spectacular.

Another much-covered track was Tim Rose's Morning Dew which is done here in extended blues rock fashion that again must have influenced The Doors. It is full of menacing, portentous atmosphere and is immaculately played. The bluesy vibe continues of the excellent, chunky rock of New New Minglewood Blues, which features some impressive organ breaks. The final number, Viola Lee Blues, is a ten minute blues workout of the sort so many subsequent bands would emulate. Once more, the atmosphere is palpable - this is thoughtful, finely-executed blues influenced rock of the highest order. The organ/guitar interplay near the end freaks out too, man.

Although this was very much a child of its spaced-out, psychedelic 1967 conception it is a bluesy, serious album with no pop pretensions, although it rocks royally on several occasions. It was played superbly well, has a great sound and, for me, is fantastic - far better than I expected it to be.

Anthem Of the Sun (1968)
That's It For The Other One/New Potato Caboose/Born Cross-Eyed/Alligator/Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)

"Nobody could sing [the new tracks recorded in NYC], and at that point they were experimenting too much in my opinion. They didn't know what the hell they were looking for" - David Hassinger - producer

The Grateful Dead had been dissatisfied with their first album, apparently (I'm not quite sure why - I think it's great) and, where that was one was rocky, psychedelic and, most importantly, bluesy, this offering was indulgent, experimental and, in many places, rambling.

It contained only five lengthy tracks and was recorded using techniques that took independently-recorded instrumentals and vocals, creating a patchwork quilt of sound when they were pasted together in the studio. All sorts of instruments were used - this being 1968, just as The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, of course, had done recently. There was 'prepared piano' (whatever that was), harpsichord, various percussion instruments, kazoo along with Eastern and Latin American instruments.

The result is a challenging mish-mash of sounds and ambience that is something of a difficult listen, to be honest. It is nowhere near as instantly appealing as its predecessor, not at all, and the sound quality doesn't get anywhere close to the impressive standard of the debut album. Whereas I found that album to be exhilarating and energetic, displaying fine musicianship, this one, in contrast, I find directionless and lacking in cohesion or purpose. In many ways, it is a journey in studio experimentation made live and released straight to the public. The band were interested in trying all sorts of new things, but, by their own admittance, it lacked something in the quality control department.

That said, there are some bits where I think "yeah, that's a good bit" - various bass runs, drum parts, percussion or the occasional guitar lick, but, overall, I have to say that it struggles to hit the spot for me. It does have a strange capacity to grow on you, however but I still prefer the debut album.

Let me detail a few plus points, though - the bass, chunky guitar riffs, infectious drums and sharp organ breaks on the adventurous That's It For The Other One and the bass/guitar/drum combination of the most appealing of the album's tracks, New Potato Caboose. Then there are the organ and guitar chops on the short, hippyish romp of Born Cross-Eyed. The rhythmic groove of Alligator has some infectious percussion and a superb guitar solo at nearly six minutes in. The track merges seamlessly into Caution, which also has some excellent, improvised percussion, vocal and keyboard moments.

Perhaps the biggest plus point of all is the fact that the album was remixed in 1971 in order to make it more 'listener friendly' and there is, to my ears at east, a marked improvement. The sound is warmer, particularly the bass and the whole thing seems to have been really 'cleaned up', for the better.

Aoxomoxoa (1969)
St. Stephen/Dupree's Diamond Blues/Rosemary/Doin' That Rag/Mountains Of The Moon/China Cat Sunflower/What's Become Of The Baby/Cosmic Charlie

"Sometime in 1969, when we realized the colossal debt we got ourselves into with the decidedly indulgent making of 'Aoxomoxoa', we realised that we needed to get a handle on our finances. We were a group of altruistic troubadours, a traveling psychedelic circus" - Bill Kreutzmann

After their highly experimental second album, The Grateful Dead went even further, in some ways, on this archetypal psychedelic album from 1969. Many aficionados of the band and music critics love it but I find myself liking some of it and finding other bits of it pretty much unlistenable. While Was prepared to accept some of the previous album’s indulgence, on this one it becomes somewhat impenetrable, for me. Having that said, there are some impressive bits and some fine musicianship and several pieces of drug-inspired post-hippy inspiration as the sixties came to an end. The carefree optimism and love of two years earlier had been replaced by an edginess with war and violence all around in Vietnam and Altamont and this was expressed in much of the period’s music. Just take some drugs and block things out, allowing the music to become more introspectively experimental and off the wall.

St. Stephen is one of the album's better tracks - a chunky piece of psychedelia meeting embryonic prog rock, full of changes of pace and ambience backing beguiling lyrics about a first century saint. Dupree's Diamond Blues is a surprisingly country-ish, jaunty bar-room sway of a song. It carefree drunken singalong vibe sits a bit incongruously with the rest of the album.

Rosemary is very typical of its era - a dense, folky acoustic dirge with distorted, incoherent vocals that turn it into a bit of a difficult listen. It could have been much better. For some, no doubt, this murkiness contains its appeal, but not for me. Doin' That Rag is a more rocky song, albeit a slow-paced one with solid riffs and vague, ethereal vocals. Again, for me it is a song that doesn't quite achieve its potential, despite some excellent organ , drums, guitar and bass. There are hints of The Band in there somewhere - here and there, probably the organ and drum sound. Both of these songs sound so much better on their 1971 remix - see bottom of the review.

Mountains Of The Moon sees the band going all folky and medieval with one of those sixties Rolling Stones-style harpsichord backings. China Cat Sunflower, a perennial live favourite of the band, is the album's stand-out track, a virtually impossibly to categorise cornucopia of impressive sounds. Basically, it's a bit proggy, but it has a funky bass line and some bluesy guitar in places and some swirling, soulful organ.

Now, I apologise in advance to all the Deadheads who may love it, but I find What's Become Of The Baby to be virtually unlistenable, particularly in its original 1969 incarnation, with its feedback, strange noises and vocals played backwards or whatever. It is The Dead's Revolution 9.

Cosmic Charlie redeems things somewhat with a bassy slow shuffle enhanced by some piercing lead guitar.

Like its predecessor, Anthem Of The Sun, this album was remixed by the band in 1971, again to great effect, giving it a more polished, less 'home-made" sound. A lot of the sonic mess has been taken off What's Become Of The Baby, which makes it just about acceptable. St. Stephen sounds much improved too and Rosemary is much cleaned up. In fact all of them do - the 1971 version is the superior listen, for me - warmer, bassier and clearer. It almost makes it a different album. There are many who may love that ad hoc rawness, but I prefer the polish of the remix of both albums.

Overall, I find that while I liked the group's bluesy first album a lot, these two experimental, drug-addled offerings can be left for just the occasional listen. As the band underwent a sea change into country rock/Americana in the following year I find that it is very much to my taste. These albums are not without their freaky, trippy good points, but they need searching for. Several listens to the 1971 mixes helps.

Workingman's Dead (1970)
Uncle John's Band/High Time/Dire Wolf/New Speedway Boogie/Cumberland Blues/Black Peter/Easy Wind/Casey Jones

"The song lyrics reflected an 'old, weird' America that perhaps never was ... The almost miraculous appearance of these new songs would also generate a massive paradigm shift in our group mind: from the mind-munching frenzy of a seven-headed fire-breathing dragon to the warmth and serenity of a choir of chanting cherubim. Even the album cover reflects this new direction: The cover for 'Aoxomoxoa' is colorful and psychedelic, and that of 'Workingman’s Dead' is monochromatic and sepia" - Philip Lesh

In 1970, The Grateful Dead completely abandoned their psychedelic, adventurous, drugged-up style, took on songwriter Robert Hunter and re-visited their original folk rock roots, tapping in to the CSNY, Byrds and Bob Dylan-led country rock boom and The Band-driven Americana one of the time. It was a total change in style, one as shocking as any in rock music thus far. There were no longer any murky, edgy weird soundscapes, no feedback, no pasted-together individually-recorded sounds, no tapes played backwards - The Grateful Dead now offered CSNY vocal harmonies, immaculately-played country rock ballads, bar-room blues boogies and riffy country blues rock. The only thing to make people think they were The Grateful Dead were the often beguiling, perplexing lyrics.

With regard to CSNY, Neil Young said that 'Hearing those guys sing and how nice they sounded together, we thought, 'We can try that. Let's work on it a little'. So, the Dead clearly influenced their supposed influencers.

The band then gained a new generation of "Deadheads", who began the cult of following the band from city to city, revelling in hearing different songs played like aural train-spotters. I am unsure as to how the fans from the psychedelic era took to country rock , however - maybe they lost some of the the hippy cult fans from the previous three years. Whatever, I'm not really sure about the minutiae of the Deadhead thing, only that it became huge and carries on to this day. Anyway, I won't dare to comment any further because I really don't know too much about the whole phenomenon of these many disparate fans. On to the music, which is what matters to me.

Uncle John's Band is a delightful crystal clear acoustic and melodious bass-backed country rock number with full-on CSNY harmonious vocals. It features some infectious percussion too. High Time is also a lovely folky slow number, with another gently beautiful bass sound and a chilled-out vibe all over it. The druggy sixties freak-out merchants had become blissed-out bucolics.

The country vibe continues on the upbeat, finger-pickin' and steel guitar melody of Dire Wolf. God knows what early Deadheads were making of this - I can't see how it appealed to those reared on grungy, acid-inspired psychedelia. After this pleasurable bar-room take we revisit the blues of the 1967 debut album on the rocking groove of New Speedway Boogie. I love this, infinitely preferring it to those dense, psychedelic experimental workouts of 1968-69. Cumberland Blues is a Pure Prairie League-style energetic country romp with lots of CSNY in there too.

Black Peter is a dead slow piece of sleepy, acoustic blues while Easy Wind is a superb serving of early seventies, muscular blues rock. This is another one I really like, with its chunky riffs, solid drums and urgent organ. There is also room for a fine harmonica solo alongside some excellent guitar. Casey Jones finds the group dabbling in a vaguely funky feel on another robust piece of bluesy rock.

Of The Dead's albums thus far, this is easily my favourite, yet I found it easier to write more about the experimental albums than I do this one. I guess it is far more formulaic, not that that is a bad thing.

Incidentally, there is a fantastic live concert recording available on the 50th Anniversary reissue of this album.

American Beauty (1970)
Box Of Rain/Friend Of The Devil/Sugar Magnolia/Operator/Candyman/Ripple/Brokedown Palace/Till The Morning Comes/Attics Of My Life/Truckin’

"It was a surprise to us – as it was to everybody else: this machine-eating, monster-psychedelic band is suddenly putting out sweet, listenable material" - Robert Hunter

This was The Grateful Dead’s second album of 1970 and it was even more of a country rock one than its predecessor. Forget psychedelia, The Dead were a full-on country rock band now, something that is often forgotten when the names of the country rock boom’s biggest artists are trotted out. It was more of an acoustic-driven album than the previous one had been, which more bluesy and it concentrates even more on vocal harmony. Don’t underestimate the magnificent bass playing of Phil Lesh either.

Box Of Rain is early seventies country rock heaven - harmonious CSNY-style vocals, jangly but melodic guitar and that early Eagles meets The Byrds to jam with CSNY sound. It has a really appealing sound and is full of fine guitar.

Friend Of The Devil is an energetic serving of tuneful country rock, featuring some finger-pickin’ guitar and an infectious ambience all round. The sound is great too, clear and with a good stereo delivery.

The delightfully breezy Sugar Magnolia has the group going full on CSNY with large hints of the sort of thing Pure Prairie League and The Flying Burrito Brothers were doing at the same time. It is just a great song - beautiful melodies and hooks abounding. Operator is a lively, attractive country rock number with slight hints of The Ballad Of John And Yoko about it, plus a great bit of harmonica.

There is a lot of CSNY influence, although this undoubtedly cut both ways, as indeed David Crosby has acknowledged - “Sometimes they have given us credit for teaching them how to sing and that's not true. They knew how to sing; they had their own style and they had the most important quality of it down already, which is tale-telling. The idea is – when you hang out with other musicians – to sort of cross-pollinate your idea streams, and that naturally happened between us on a level that was very rare. We would listen to what they were doing with time signatures and with breaking the rules, and it appealed to us a lot”. The Dead’s Jerry Garcia had also played on CSNY’s Deja Vu.

Candyman is a sleepy drink-addled sounding maudlin country rock ballad featuring some fine organ and guitar while Ripple is a most fetching mid-pace, gentle number too. The laid-back, peaceful feeling continues on the deliciously bassy slowie Brokedown Palace.

The tempo ups again on the catchy and melodic tones of Till The Morning Comes. Attics Of My Life is just beautiful and that wonderful bass line just has me purring like one of my three cats.

The album closes with a Dead favourite - Truckin’ is great, lively, toe-tapping country rock chugger with a rockabilly edge, great guitar and a lovely rubbery, insistent bass line.

I love the previous album, but I appreciate this one even more. Really good stuff. Robust country rock at its best.
Wake Of The Flood (1973)

Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo/Let Me Sing Your Blues Away/Row Jimmy/Stella Blue/Here Comes Sunshine/Eyes Of The World/Weather Report Suite

This was The Grateful Dead’s first studio album for three years and they continued their transformation from far out druggies to country rockers. The album, from 1973, was an enchanting mix of country rock, soft rock with gentle reggae, funk and jazz rock influences lurking under the surface. It is a most pleasant affair. It was a peculiar thing in the mid-seventies that mature, ‘adult’ music like this flourished in the USA, whereas the UK was in the grip of glam rock and prog.

Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo is a laid-back country number with a feel of The Band to it. All very relaxing, AOR stuff and again a million miles from the late sixties psychedelic freakouts. Check out that fiddle and guitar - really catchy. The track gets better with each listen. Let Me Sing Your Blues Away is a lively piece of vaguely funky, brassy, saxophone-enhanced Americana easy-swinging rock.

Row Jimmy is an appealing, slow pot-boiler with some sleepy, soothing vocals and overall chilled-out vibe. It has a slight reggae backbeat to it. Stella Blue is even more gentle. It is a quite, reflective ballad and is so laid-back as to be almost comatose. The bass is sumptuous on it. The tempo ups a little on Here Comes Sunshine, which is once more carrying a little bit of a summery reggae influence, together with hints of The Beatles’ Sun King in its bassy bliss.

The jewel in the crown of the album is the delicious Eyes Of The World, which features some sublime melodically funky rhythm guitar and sone great high-pitched lead guitar, as well as fine male and female vocals (from Donna Jean Godchaux). This was The Grateful Dead at their mid-seventies best. The same compliment can also be paid to the lengthy closer, the beautiful, bassy and folky Weather Report Suite. It has a quiet, folky first section and a more upbeat but still subtle second passage featuring some killer jazzy saxophone. All very relaxingly cerebral, as is the whole album. There are probably reams of analysis to be read about the songs but the only question for me is do I like it. Yes I do. I’ll never make a Deadhead, will I, if I am not prepared to analyse.

Thursday, 10 September 2020


Rufus (1973)

Slip 'n' Slide/Keep It Coming/There's No Tellin'/Maybe Your Baby/I Finally Found You/Feel Good/Satisfied/Haulin' Coal/Whoever's Thrilling You (Is Killing Me)/Medley - Love The One You're With-Sit Yourself Down

This 1973 debut album from Rufus is totally different from the albums that made their name from the following year. Surprisingly it is far more a rock album with soul and gospel influences than it is a soul/funk album like its two highly successful follow-ups. It is a rick album in essence featuring a soul vocalist in Yvonne Stevens (soon to be known as Chaka Khan here). It makes for a highly interesting album. 

Slip 'n' Slide is a breakneck, rollicking serving of rock 'n' roll meets gospel, with all the group's vocalists giving it their all. Ashford and Simpson's Keep It Coming is a bassy, rock-ish mid-pace number that showcases the remarkable voice of vocalist Chaka Khan. 

Ron Stockert takes lead vocals on the Tumbleweed Connection-era Elton John style orchestrated ballad, There's No Tellin', that features some very Billy Joel-esque piano and a killer lead guitar solo. There is not a funky groove to be found here. Funk first appears on the delicious wah-wah and chunky drums backing of Stevie Wonder's Maybe Your Baby, which actually improves on the original, both instrumentally and due in no small part to Khan's towering vocal. Once again, the mid-song fuzzy guitar solo is outstandingly good.

I Finally Found You is a piano-led slowie that has Chaka in Tina Turner mode on the vocal. The bass and piano backing is lovely. Good song. Feel Good is an infectious piece of funky rock with a great riff and another fabulous, rubber-band bass line. Satisfied rocks with a gospel vibrancy from its very first note, in a most unique fashion - this really is an impossible album to categorise. The Elton John vibe is there again on the gentle, soulful piano and vocal strains of Haulin' Coal. Stockert in on lead vocals again, sounding a lot like Leon Russell, in that nasal sort of way.

Chaka is back is the chunky, bassy Southern soul of Allen Toussaint's Whoever's Thrilling You (Is Killing Me) and the album finishes with covers of two Stephen Stills songs - Love The One You're With and Sit Yourself Down. The former is slowed down, initially, to a piano, organ and voice gospel groove until it bursts out, Proud Mary-style to a marvellous piece of soul boogie which continues into the second song.

This is well worth checking out. It was all change after this however.

Rags To Rufus (1974)

You Got The Love/I Got The Right Street (But The Wrong Direction)/Walkin' In The Sun/Rags To Rufus/Swing Down Chariot/Sideways/Ain't Nothin' But A Maybe/Tell Me Something Good/Look Through My Eyes/In Love We Grow/Smokin' Room

This was Rufus's second album, dating from 1974, and is pretty much more of the same fare as their first offering - raw, cookin' funk and sumptuous, soulful ballads. It is slightly the better of the two albums, being more varied in style. In my view it tops Rufusized, from later in the same year as well. 

You Got the Love is a superb, funky opener featuring some absolutely stonking lead guitar. This was one of Rufus's strength - they merged rock instrumentation with funk most effectively. This is a copper-bottomed accessible funk classic, a truly superb track.  I Got the Right Street (But the Wrong Direction) is another pot boiling funker, with more great guitar, as too is the grinding Blaxploitation soundtrack-ish instrumental, Rags To Rufus. Check out that freaky keyboard solo. This is seventies funk of the highest order, recorded in superb sound quality too. In between these tracks, up third, is the uplifting, gospel-influenced ballad, Walkin' In the Sun, which has a killer bass line and a fantastic Chaka Khan vocal. 

Swing Down Chariot is, unsurprisingly, a rousing gospel duet between Khan and Ron Stockert, who interestingly left the group half way through the album's recording, unhappy at the promoting of Khan at the head of the group. It features some seriously stonking saxophone too. Sideways is a brief funky instrumental that leads into the guitar-driven and nicely orchestrated slowie Ain't Nothin' But A Maybe. Stevie Wonder's Tell Me Something Good is a typically clavinet-powered chunky piece of slow, grinding funk. 

Look Through My Eyes is a deliciously catchy and funky number while In Love We Grow is a dramatic, piano-backed Chaka shrieker. The album closes with the peacefully rhythmic strains of Smokin' Room, with its sweeping strings, infectious gentle congas and, of course, a fine Chaka vocal. Overall, this is a soul/funk album worthy of high regard. It deservedly sold loads. 

Rufusized (1974)

Once You Get Started/Somebody's Watching You/Pack'd My Bags/Your Smile/Rufusized/I'm A Woman (I'm A Backbone)/Right Is Right/Half Moon/Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me Of A Friend)/Stop On By   

Rufus had released one very unsuccessful debut album of funk/soul in 1973, and changed their line-up considerably for their comparative breakthrough offering the following year, Rags To Riches, so much so that they were virtually a new band. That album provided a showcase for the vocal talents of one Chaka Khan and this was continued here on their third outing. 
With a few seconds of the upbeat funky brass and wah-wah-driven Once You Get Started beginning, Chaka Khan arrives with her distinctive multi-pitched vocals. Sometimes high, sometimes low, sometimes gruff and gritty, sometimes sweet and melodious - her range is most impressive. Fellow vocalist Tony Maiden provides a great contribution too and the music is top notch - ass-kicking funk of the highest quality. Just check out that throbbing, rubberband bass and those funky guitars. Rufus gained appearances on Soul Train on the back of this and you can hear why. The song's rhythm has an early disco groove that was actually quite ground-breaking. The sound is superb too - big, full, warm and bassy.

Somebody's Watching You is a cookin' piece of down 'n' dirty funk/soul - tuneful and earthy at the same time. Its influence on Michael Jackson's Off The Wall era material is clear. Pack'd My Bags is more of a straight ahead sumptuous slow soul number than a funker, despite a funky break in the middle. Your Smile is far more laid-back and sublimely soulful. The sound quality on here is outstanding and again, I can't state it enough, this is some of the best seventies soul around. Khan's vocal on this song is magnificent.

Rufusized is an early Commodores-style, organ-driven funky semi-instrumental with only occasional backing vocals, great saxophone and funky guitar as well. The solid funk of  I'm A Woman (I'm A Backbone) is a prototype I'm Every Woman and typical of the burgeoning number of strong female singers and songs that emerged in the early mid-seventies. Sisters were doing it for themselves. Right Is Right is so deliciously funky it hurts. That guitar is right on the money, man. The funk continues apace on the upbeat, frantic Half Moon, which is chock full of organ breaks, pulsating bass and fast shuffling drums.

Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me Of A Friend) is representative of a lot of the soul songs of the period with a mini-story based within its three soulful minutes. Stop On By ends this excellent album with an appealing slice of slow-burning, bassy funky soul. It was a cover of a Bobby Womack song. Overall, this album was one of the seventies' finest examples of funk-edged soul.

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan (1974)

Fools' Paradise/Have A Good Time/Ooh I Like Your Loving/Everybody Has An Aura/Circles/Sweet Thing/Dance Wit Me/Little Boy Blue/On Time/Jive Talkin'

This was Rufus's third album of funky soul in just over a year. It slightly lacks the spark and variety of the previous two, sounding a lot like the albums that Chaka Khan would release towards the end of the decade. By now all rock/soul fusion had been forgotten - it was soul/funk all the way. The cover was great too, although it owes more than a little to The Rolling Stones' 'lips' design.

Fools' Paradise is a slick, effortless offering of jazzy Crusaders-influenced funk and the same applies to the party starter, the upbeat Have A Good Time. Ooh I Like Your Loving is more slow-paced, plodding funky soul but it is in possession of a sublime bass line. I am sure David Bowie was influenced by the layered backing vocals for the material on his Young Americans album the following year.

Everybody Has An Aura is a seductive, insistent brassy funk groove which seems pretty formulaic now, but at the time was reasonably new in its slick, smooth, late-night vibe. It too the orchestration of Philly Soul and funked it up. Circles is irresistibly attractive in its shuffling funk and it goes without saying that Chaka's vocals are stridently impressive, as are the robust keyboard lines. Sweet Thing is a track that would provide a template for numerous soul/funk bands over many subsequent years. Indeed, bands are still playing in this style today, such as the UK's SouLutions

Dance Wit Me ups the beat from end-of-the-evening smooching to mid-evening getting down with a lively keyboard/bass/drums-powered groover. Give some time to the bass/cymbal/keyboard interplay at the end. Little Boy Blue is string-backed soul/funk by numbers - nothing special, but still eminently listenable. On Time is an appealing, mid-pace jazz-funky instrumental, while The Bee Gees' Jive Talkin' is slowed-down considerably and undeniably enhanced by Khan's vocals, but personally prefer the original's speed. 

The band would go on to release two more with Chaka Khan on lead vocals, before she left to pursue her successful solo career.


"I would sing the Lord's Prayer and my mother would hold her breath until I made the high notes" - Syreeta Wright 
Syreeta (1972)
I Love Every Little Thing About You/Black Maybe/ Keep Him Like He Is/Happiness/She's Leaving Home/What Love Has Joined Together/How Many Days/Baby Don't You Let Me Lose This/To Know You Is To Love You

In 1972, Stevie Wonder divorced his wife Syreeta Wright (or maybe she divorced him) and then promptly collaborated with her on writing, playing on and producing her first album. Some critics prefer her second album, but for me it is this one that is the superior product. Wonder adopts the 'play most of the instruments myself' approach that his parallel album, Music Of My Mind, utilises. The sound is instantly recognisable - that 'home-grown' drum sound in particular.

I Love Every Little Thing About You appeared, of course on Stevie Wonder's Music Of My Mind, and is covered here in typical Wonder style - lots of clavinet, funky cymbal work, wah-wah guitars, all helped by Syreeta's versatile voice. It is a convincing and nicely funky version, making for a good, lively start to the album.

Black Maybe sees the pace slow down completely on an aware and soulful ballad. Keep Him Like He Is is a rhythmic, syncopated but slow-ish Wonder composition, featuring some funky guitar backing together with a dreamy string orchestration while Wright's gentle ballad Happiness is a pleasant, subtly-backed number that builds up to an uplifting, gospel finish.

Beatles covers were a common thing on Motown albums from the mid-sixties onwards and Paul McCartney's She's Leaving Home is done acceptably - Syreeta's voice suitably moving and Wonder using his "talk box" sound affects thingy to add something different. What Love Has Joined Together is a Smokey Robinson song given a funky but heavily-orchestrated Wonder makeover.

How Many Days is a quiet Wonder ballad featuring a backing and vocal delivery typical of its era. Baby Don't Let Me Lose This is a synthesiser/drums/bass backed, very Wonder-esque upbeat number and the final song is a fine duet between Wonder and Wright on To Know You Is To Love You. It has a captivating, high quality rhythmic backing. It is arguably the best track on the album and would have enhanced Music Of My Mind no end. As I said earlier, I prefer this album to its follow-up, finding it more of a smooth, ambient listen.
Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta (1974)
I’m Goin’ Left/Spinnin’ And Spinnin’/Come And Get This Stuff/Your Kiss Is Sweet/Heavy Day/Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers/Just A Little Piece Of You/Waitin’ For The Postman/When Your Daddy’s Not Around/I Wanna Be By Your Side/Universal Sound Of The World

This was Syreeta Wright’s second album, from 1974, and it is full of songs written with ex-husband Stevie Wonder, and in that respect it is a quite similar album to Wonder’s Talking Book. It is probably a closer cousin, though, to the more experimental Music Of My Mind, however, in its slightly un-cohesive feel. After a promising first side, the album loses it a bit, considerably, on the old side two. I will give it the benefit of the doubt, though, and accept that it may be an acquired taste. Indeed, a few listens helps somewhat in this respect. 

I’m Goin’ Left is a robust, chunky funker of an opener before we get the two hits - the airy, dreamy, quirky soul of Spinnin’ And Spinnin’ and the blatant, strident, singalong pop of Your Kiss Is Sweet. After these two is the solid, bassy funk of Come And Get This Stuff. This is my personal favourite on the album. Incidentally, it was originally writen for Chaka Khan for use with Rufus, but she preferred the equally funky, Wonder-penned Tell Me Something Good instead. 

Heavy Day is a beautiful slow number with lots of Stevie Wonder influence all over it. That influence continues on the gentle, romantic strains of Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers. These two are both really appealing, attractive, lovely songs. Just A Little Piece Of You is more seductively upbeat, with that typical ‘home-made’ chunky Wonder drum sound most prominent and a great bass line. Syreeta sounds like Diana Ross on this one. 

Now here is where it all goes a bit awry as the album briefly goes all ‘concept’ for a few minutes, most unadvisedly, and it sort of spoils the whole feel - Waitin’ For The Postman is a short, cacophonous oddity and the bizarre When Your Daddy’s Not Around even more so. They are both totally unnecessary inclusions. Thankfully, the quality returns on I Wanna Be By Your Side, a strong duet with G.C.Cameron

Unfortunately this odd diversification has made the album sound a bit indulgent. Universal Sound Of The World also redeems things a bit, but I can’t help but feel this album was a bit of an over-reach on Wonder and Wright’s part, because it is a bit of a mess in places, for me, anyway. I am not sure what they were trying to achieve at times. The next album would not appear for over two years but it was a better one, for me at least. 
One To One (1977)
One To One/I Don't Know/Rest Yourself/I Too Am Wanting/Tiki Tiki Donga/Don't Cry/Harmour Love/One To One (reprise)

Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright's ex-husband and long-time musical collaborator, had a hand in the production of this immaculately-produced 1977 serving of sweet, funky-ish in places, but generally smooth and relaxing soul. Also involved was her second husband, Curtis Robinson, Jr. That must have been fun in the studio. Maybe Stevie didn’t mind. Obviously not.

One To One is a very Stevie Wonder/Detroit Spinners-esque upbeat number that I am sure has Michael Jackson guesting on vocals although I could be wrong, but Syreeta address a "Michael" towards to end of the song and it sounds like him on the backing vocals. Listen - I am convinced it is him.

I Don’t Know has a great bass line, a gospelly feel and some superb, cookin’ saxophone from Gary 'Music Is My Sanctuary' Bartz. Check out the bass/drum/congas/vocal interplay near the end too - this is a delicious piece of effortlessly groovy seventies soul. Rest Yourself is a peaceful, slow burning, unthreatening workout that you sense singers like Syreeta could cope with in their sleep.

I Too Am Wanting is a late-night slice of sensual, sleepy soul, enhanced near the end by some seriously impressive falsetto from Syreeta. Tiki Tiki Donga is an infectious, African-influenced rhythmic number, featuring some great bass, wah-wah guitar and percussion. It is extremely funky in places too and is one of the album’s highlights for me. Don’t Cry sees a return to the bedtime vibe with another smoocher.

Strangely, Syreeta’s summer of 1975 hit, Wonder’s Harmour Love appears, apparently at the last minute, as its summery, semi-reggae acoustic/bass rhythms and poppy melody sits most incongruously with the rest of the album. I still really like it, though, and its joyous sound brings back memories of that summer (I had bought the single).

This all-too-short album ends with a pleasant semi-instrumental version of One To One, which sort of gives you the impression they had run out of material somewhat.

Friday, 4 September 2020

Bobbie Gentry

"I just can't bring myself to compromise" -Bobbie Gentry
Ode To Billie Joe (1967)

Mississippi Delta/I Saw An Angel Die/Chickasaw County Child/Sunday Best/Niki Hoeky/Papa Won't You Let Me Go To Town With You?/Bugs/Hurry, Tuesday Child/Lazy Willie/Ode To Billie Joe

"It's about basic indifference, the casualness of people in moments of tragedy" - Bobbie Gentry

This was Mississippi girl Bobbie Gentry's debut album from 1967 and is bookended by two of her finest tracks, both of which are typical of her work in that they detail various aspects and stories of Southern States life - something Gentry made a career out of doing. It is a nice mix of downhome swampy, earthy blues material and tender string-backed ballads. The feel of the Deep South is all over the album. Now, pass me some of those black-eyed peas, please....

Mississippi Delta is a superb piece of throaty and husky-voiced bluesy fare about Gentry's early life in the South packed full of references to crawdad holes, peppermint sticks, mosquito bites and lots of other incomprehensible local dialect lyrics. Its atmosphere is palpable, you can feel the heat and the sweaty summers. It rocks with a bluesy energy from note one and always gets me hot under the collar imagining Gentry swanning around in the Southern swamps, barefoot and skimpy check top, raven hair failing over her shoulders...steady on now.

The tempo changes now on the slow acoustic and mournful ballad I Saw An Angel Die before the good ol' Deep South homespun blues are back on the swampy strains of Chickasaw County Child. Sunday Best is a laid-back acoustic and brass gentle ballad with Gentry's voice less gruff and sweeter in the style she would use on 1969's I'll Never all In Love Again.

Gentry goes Cajun on the patois number, Niki Hoeky, a song also covered by Aretha Franklin. It sounds like a Gentry original, in both its lyrical content and its staccato swampy riffy blues backing. Papa Won't You Let Me Go To Town With You? is a slightly jazzy, brassy acoustic number, while Bugs is a jerky, quirky and amusing song about insects. Even a sort of throwaway song like this is enhanced by Gentry's incredibly sexy, characterful and unique voice and her appealing wit.

Hurry, Tuesday Child slows the pace down to a walk on a boiling afternoon with an evocative ballad backed by some sumptuous trumpet. I reckon Elvis Costello would have loved this one. He covered lots of similar material on his Almost Blue album.

The final two tracks are Gentry classics - Lazy Willie - a tale about the youngest, and laziest of seventeen children duet against a typical Gentry backing. Without one noticing, the song seems to morph seamlessly into the song that really broke it big for Gentry - the heartbreaking, haunting narrative of Ode To Billie Joe. The song is an absolute treasure of intriguing, incredibly atmospheric lyrics and a top notch vocal and instrumental delivery from Gentry. It is almost a novelette in its own right.

Just what did Billie Joe McAllister throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? A wedding ring, or (more grisly, but it did come in to my mind)  - an aborted/miscarried foetus? We will never know, neither did its writer - Gentry has always said that she left these mysterious parts of the songs deliberately that, remaining a mystery. The song, to her, was written to show how indifferent and casual people could be when hearing of a tragedy - in this case the narrator's (a girl's) family carrying on eating their dinner apparently relatively unmoved by an incident that was anything but everyday.

This album knocked Sgt. Pepper off the top of the Billboard chart, would you believe? It was good, but maybe not that good. Whatever, it was certainly a most impressive and unusual debut.

The Delta Sweete (1968)

Okolona River Bottom Band/Big Boss Man/Reunion/Parchman Farm/Morning Glory/Sermon/Tobacco Road/Penduli Pendulum/Jessye ‘Lisabeth/Refractions/Louisiana Man/Courtyard

"I didn't lose any sleep over it. I've never tried to second-guess public taste" - Bobbie Gentry

This was Bobbie Gentry’s second album and followed her number one debut Ode To Billie Joe. It was a loose ‘concept album’ based around (surprise, surprise) life in the Deep South. There are some cover versions included as well as Gentry’s original compositions but they all suit the theme well. The tracks all flow into each other, adding to the ‘suite’ concept, (corrupted here into ‘sweete’ - Southern term for a pretty girl, like ‘belle’).

Okolona River Bottom Band is a shuffling New Orleans brass meets swamp blues, featuring some background madcap laughter, a typically husky vocal from Gentry and some infectious percussion. It mines the same bluesy seam as Mississippi Delta had on the previous album.

Big Boss Man is a catchy, harmonica-driven blues with once more some really rhythmic percussion, particularly on the bits where the backing stops apart from the congas. It is a genuinely great piece of rocking blues (it is a cover) that would have sounded great on an early Rolling Stones album. Reunion is a strange vocal and minimalist strummed guitar backing song that has Gentry reminiscing about her upbringing with various vocalists taking the parts of her family. It is an odd song, but a strangely captivating one.

Parchman Farm is a deliciously attractive cover of a Mose Allison song, with some marvellous bass/guitar and percussion interplay behind Gentry’s archetypally gruff but sensual vocal. It eventually merges into the lovely, relaxing warm bath feel of Morning Glory that has another sumptuous vocal. The upbeat gospelly brass/rhythm groove of Sermon is next. The sound quality is superb on all this stuff. Listen to it through headphones, it is excellent. The original mono version of the album is good too, but it is better suited to full speakers. Check out Big Boss Man in mono.

The much-covered standard, Tobacco Road, is putty in Gentry’s hands and turned into a slow, grinding blues, the strangely titled Penduli Pendulum is an orchestrated, almost hippy-ish slow number, while Jessye ‘Lisabeth is a most gentle, almost folky, acoustic ballad.

Refractions is a ghostly song detailing an odd dream Gentry had but, just as the album was starting to become a bit bogged down in quiet reflections, Louisiana Man brings country blues back. However, the final track, the acoustic and thoroughly beautiful Courtyard has the gentle introspective feel returning. It is certainly a nice song, though.

The final third of the album is nicely understated but tends to lose a bit of momentum. Compared to the success of its predecessor, it was a failure, barely registering on the charts. I am not quite sure why that was at all, neither was Gentry, claiming she was not able to second-guess the public. I can see what she meant, there is no reason for this one not to do reasonably well, surely those who liked the first album will have liked this one? Maybe the whole concept thing out them off.

It was, despite its lack of sales, a mature, well-crafted piece if work and way ahead of its time, in many ways. It was only early 1968, remember - a concept album? From a female country artist? Hmmm, they must have thought. More power to her, I say.

A non-album track from the period is the glorious brassy soul/rock of Seventh Son. A great alternative version of Mississippi Delta was knocking around too.

Local Gentry (1968)
Sweete Peony/Casket Vignette/Come Away Melinda/The Fool On The Hill/Papa’s Medicine Show/Ace Insurance Man/Recollection/Sittin’ Pretty/Eleanor Rigby/Peaceful/Here, There And Everywhere

Bobbie Gentry’s second album of 1968 saw her introduce covers in to her recordings more - five of the eleven tracks are her own, six are covers including three from The Beatles. The ambience still contains much of the home-grown swampy folk charm of its predecessor, Delta Sweete. Unfortunately, and incomprehensibly, this one was not a success either.

Gentry’s Sweete Peony is a shuffling piece of bluesy delta groove that would have suited the previous album. Also her song is the acute observational song about a funeral director, the appropriately-titled Casket Vignette.

Come Away Melinda is an acoustic, guitar-pickin’ number with topical anti-war lyrics. In 1968, with Vietnam at its height, many such songs were becoming increasingly popular. The first Beatles cover is The Fool On The Hill, which mixes oompah with country - another popular thing in the late sixties was Beatles covers. It sounds more than a little incongruous, however, amongst these songs of the South. It is plaintively beautiful, though. The Beatles-style instrumentation continues on the folky and simultaneously lively and slow Papa’s Medicine Show, which even gets a little wah-wah funky at times.

Gentry’s jaunty, Deep South narrative Ace Insurance Man mixes humour with sharp observation and a selection of in-character voices from Bobbie. Recollection is a sort of folk torch song that has slight echoes of The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home. Sittin’ Pretty has a quirky, almost psychedelic 1968 feel on its faster passages. Stuff like this was actually quite adventurous at the time, indeed, even the concept of a female singer-songwriter was. Gentry needs more credit than she gets for being a bit of a (albeit reluctant) trail blazer.

While The Fool On The Hill may not have seemed to quite fit, Eleanor Rigby could have been written for Gentry. Its innate sadness suits her down to the ground. It is one the most underrated Beatles covers. Peaceful is a gently rocking, orchestrated and most appealing number featuring some fine instrumentation. The final Beatles cover is McCartney’s Here, There And Everywhere, to which Bobbie lends her lovely voice, together with an infectiously sixties-style lounge bar jazzy backing.

Overall, there was a certain cohesiveness to this album and a slight improvement in sound quality from the previous two. There were also some impressive non-album tracks in the funky, jerky Skip Along Sam, the smooth, soulful Hushabye Mountain and the excellent, typical Gentry bluesy narrative of The Conspiracy Of Homer Jones, which is a bit of a hidden gem. Surprisingly, it wasn’t written by her. It should have been on the album. There are also the gentle country tones of Cotton Candy Sandman. Some good stuff was left off the eventual release.

Touch 'Em With Love (1969)
Touch ‘Em With Love/Greyhound Goin’ Somewhere/Natural To Be Gone/Seasons Come Seasons Go/Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing/I Wouldn’t Be Surprised/Son Of A Preacher Man/Where’s The Playground, Johnny/I’ll Never Fall In Love Again/You Make Me So Very Happy

This, Bobbie Gentry’s fourth solo album, from 1969, has a real case for being her best. It differs slightly from her previous ones, which were a mix of bluesy down home Deep South tales and plaintive, often beguiling ballads. This one is a mix of Memphis style soul, tuneful country and gospelly country soul. It is her Dusty In Memphis, (released six months later) with equally sexy, husky vocals and full of strident bass and excellent fatback drums. The sound quality is superb throughout as well.

All but two songs here are covers, but Gentry covers are always fine offerings.

Touch ‘Em With Love is a short, but a superbly gritty, soulful and kick ass piece of Stax-y fare, featuring a trademark gruff Gentry vocal together with some fine organ, drums, guitar and backing vocals. Excellent stuff. As too is the appealing, melodic upbeat country groove of Greyhound Goin’ Somewhere.

Natural Being Gone is also lively and attractive, with some finger-pickin’ banjo backing another of her perceptive lyrics. Gentry’s own Seasons Come Seasons Go is a gentle, beautifully bassy, John Denver-style song. It is lyrically beautiful, thoughtful and melodically entrancing - just lovely.

Bobbie’s other self-penned song is Glory Hallelujah, How They’ll Sing which is, unsurprisingly, a gospel number straight from the churches of the South. Bobbie could always do gospel well, with her throaty, husky voice. I Wouldn’t Be Surprised is a Memphis style, Dusty Springfield-esque robust brassy soul ballad. The next track is known to all Dusty fans, of course, the iconic Son Of A Preacher Mann, and it is just as well done here. Jim Webb’s Where’s The Playground, Johnny is a big, orchestrated number that you would think was Dusty if you didn’t know.

If the Dusty comparisons are getting too regular, next up is a true Bobbie gem - her interpretation of Bacharach and David’s I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, which was a huge hit and is just sublime. Scottish band Deacon Blue also covered it well some twenty tears years later. Bobbie, as well being a great singer-songwriter, could also nail a cover, and she does so here with her take on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ brassy classic You Made Me So Very Happy.

Albums in those days were short, so it ends there. Non-album tracks from the period were the muscular More Today Than Yesterday and excellent covers of David Clayton-Thomas’s Spinning Wheel and Bacharach/David’s This Girl’s In Love With You and The Windows Of The World. Also notable are six laid-back stand-up bass, guitar and piano smoky jazz covers which were originally intended for this album (which was originally going to be the release, but was suddenly shelved in favour of the more soulful approach). These are all really good tracks and Gentry handles them perfectly, giving them a smooth, sexy, late-night feel. Let’s be honest, Bobbie was sexy as hell.

I really love this album and its add-ons - great sound, great playing and great sexy, soulful singing. Top notch.

Fancy (1970)
Fancy/I’ll Never Fall In Love Again/Delta Man/Something In The Way He Moves/Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em And Forget ‘Em/He Made A Woman Out Of Me/Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head /If You’ve Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody/Rainmaker/Wedding Bell Blues

"Sexy is as sexy does and Bobbie Gentry certainly does. She's taken the sensual seductiveness of her own 'Fancy' and made that the criterion for this new album" - Record World

Containing only one Gentry original, this 1970 Bobbie Gentry album is wonderful anyway - packed full of both sexy Southern soul and easy listening numbers given a gritty makeover from beginning to end.

Fancy is a brooding piece of Southern soul detailing the tale of a young girl’s fight to escape from poverty by way of prostitution. It is a marvellously atmospheric, brassy number, one of Bobbie’s best. She followed that up with a copper-bottomed husky-voiced classic in Bacharach/David’s I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. It is just a great song, as everyone knows, but Gentry makes it her own. Strangely, it had appeared on her previous album as well.

Delta Man is a catchy, vibrant soulful number with more great brass and, of course, another superb vocal. James Taylor’s Something In The Way He Moves is delivered beautifully - romantic, tender and soothing. Just lovely.

Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em And Forget ‘Em is a robustly horn-powered Stax-esque number with Bobbie at her most grittily soulful. Equally bumptious is the cookin’ and sexy He Made A Woman Out Of Me. These two are serious Deep South servings.

Bacharach/David’s iconic Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head has always irritated me a tiny bit, (mainly due to the movie clips of Paul Newman pissing about on a bike) but as it’s Bobbie Gentry here I’ll mellow my feelings. It sounds great in her capable hands. If You’ve Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody is an oompah-ish lively and poppy song, while Harry Nilsson’s Rainmaker is another track that seems tailor-made for Gentry’s superb interpretative abilities.

Laura Nyro’s Wedding Bell Blues is jauntily appealing too snd before we know it this great-sounding, immensely pleasurable offering is over. The pity was that the great Bobbie Gentry had only one more album left in her before she inexplicably packed it all in.

Interesting non-album tracks are a fine cover of Elvis’s In The Ghetto and the impressive Apartment 21, which surely must have influenced Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Patchwork (1971)
Benjamin/Interlude 1/Marigolds And Tangerines/Interlude 2/Billy The Kid/Interlude 3/Beverley/Interlude 4 /Miss Clara/Interlude 5/But I Can’t Get Back/Jeremiah/Interlude6/Belinda/Mean Step Mama Blues/Your Number One Fan/Interlude 7/Somebody Like Me/Lookin’ In

"Those who have been taking Bobbie Gentry lightly...stop and reconsider” - Cashbox

This was, unfortunately, Bobbie Gentry’s last album and, in many ways, it was her most adventurous. Populated with all Gentry original songs, it contained little of the Stax-y soul of her previous two albums, or much of the Mississippi blues of her first three outings. Many of the songs are separated by short instrumental interludes and there seems to be a loose concept, but, if I’m honest, I struggle to pick up on what it is. It is a quirky, Impossible to categorise piece of work, but it is appealing in a strange sort of way and its creativity/originality should be admired. In many places, a string autobiographical streak can detected and also a sad, seeming admittance of defeat along with the more familiar Gentry nostalgia. It was like she knew this was her last shot, which contributes to the general feeling of sadness.

Benjamin is a laid-back piece of singalong bluesy jazz while Marigolds And Tangerines is a low-key, acoustic and evocative number. Billy The Kid is a jaunty, cowboy song about the legendary outlaw. Beverley is sung in English and Spanish, and tells the tale of a girl who works on a production line and then we get the ragtime-ish, upbeat story of librarian Miss Clara. Once again the song is enlivened by Gentry’s wry, witty lyrics. It ends with some infectious jazzy drum and brass rhythms. It is all great fun, and you can sense Bobbie is really enjoying herself. But I Can’t Get Back is a beautiful, moving ballad with a big chorus and a lovely warm bass line.

Jeremiah is a big production, gospel-influenced and heavily-orchestrated number and Bobbie’s voice copes admirably with everything the backing demands of her, it truly soars. Belinda is a catchy country-ish sing about a stripper, enhanced by some more fine lyrics. Bobbie sounds just like Karen Carpenter on this one.

The blues finally arrives on the Delta blues of Mean Step Mama Blues which is set alight in the middle by some stonking horn breaks and lead guitar. Your Number One Fan is a catchy, jazzy piece of fun. Somebody Like Me has a soulful, brassy groove and, as I listen to this, I am struck again by just how versatile Gentry’s voice is on this album.

The plaintive strains of Lookin’ In end this most unusually appealing album on a poignant, reflective note - ‘I’m packing up and I’m checking out” sings Gentry, presciently.

There were many reviewers at the time who said that this was Gentry’s work of genius. Maybe they were right. It may not have the instant appeal of her other work, but it certainly has a bucketful of originality and display a huge talent.

What a shame that this album bombed and Bobbie Gentry left music behind. For four years she really sparkled. Her songs will live on forever and that is something she should be most proud of. She could sing beautifully, play guitar and write wonderful songs and deserved far more success. Retrospectively, however, her reputation has grown and grown.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Toots & The Maytals (inc. latest album)

"Well, he's the nearest thing to Otis Redding left on the planet: he transforms 'do re mi fa soh la ti do' into joyful noise" - Robert Christgau

Funky Kingston (1973)

Sit Right Down/Pomps And Pride/Louie Louie/I Can't Believe/Redemption Song/Daddy's Home/Funky Kingston/It Was Written Down

“Out of all of us though, me an’ Bob were very good friends. Me an’ him used to talk more than I would talk to Peter or Bunny" - Toots Hibbert

From early 1973, this was the first Toots & The Maytals album to really get some attention, possibly in the wake of Bob Marley's Catch A Fire's acceptance by non-Jamaican, more mainstream rock consumers. Although a short album, only containing eight tracks, it contains some excellent examples of Toots Hibbert's vocal versatility, interpretive ability and sheer gruff power. For many, this album, in its original Jamaican format, is closer to the real soul of Jamaican country music than Bob Marley's output from the same era was.

There was a subsequent 1975 US release of the album that mix its three (supposed) best tracks with more from the follow-up, In the Dark. It makes for a good album, actually, but I prefer listening to both the albums as they were originally intended - in their Jamaican versions. The sound on this one is a bit more rough and ready than the more polished one found on In The Dark, though.

Sit Right Down is one of those grinding skanks which sees Toots improvising his vocals as he goes along, with consummate ease as the band and he anticipate each other's moves with perfect synchronisation. Pomps And Pride is another  off the cuff vocal performance with a catchy chorus, albeit with pretty incomprehensible Jamaican patois lyrics.

Louie Louie is The Kingsmen's 1963 hit given the unique Toots treatment. It sounds as if should have been a Toots song from the start, so good is his reading of it. I Can't Believe is a cover of an Ike Turner song again taken to a higher plane by Hibbert 's skill as a vocalist. Much of it is simply "ah-ah-ah" call and response stuff but nobody does that like Toots, sounding like a Jamaican Otis Redding.

Redemption Song is not the Bob Marley song (that came from much later) and is a typical Maytals horn-powered mid-pace skank. Marley, (a good friend of Hibbert's), upon hearing Toots' song apparently said something like "I gonna do a redemption song too...", liking the title. The two had a mutual respect and friendship. Incidentally, the group also did a song called Get Up, Stand Up which wasn't the Marley song either. Daddy's Home sounds like an old fifties cover (I am sure it is - by Shep & The Limelites in 1961) and is delivered in churchy, gospel style by Toots.

The album's tour de force is Funky Kingston, a magnificent (nearly) five minutes of piano, guitar and drums-driven funky reggae. It highlights Toots' ability to utilise other musical styles, in this case urban seventies funk, alongside his traditional reggae sounds. The initially instrumental break just before the two-minute mark is breathtaking stuff and Hibbert's voice merges with some funky percussion to great effect. It Was Written Down is a devotional skank to finish on.

If I was forced to merge the two 1973 albums, I would take tracks 1,2,3,5 & 7 from here and merge them with 1-4, 7, 8 and 11 from In The Dark. What an album that would be, actually.

The picture below was adapted by Trojan Records for a compilation called Funky Kingston. Charlie Ace's legendary Swing-A-Ling mobile record shack sign was replaced by Funky Kingston.

In The Dark (1973)

Got To Be There/In The Dark/Having A Party/Time Tough/I See You/Take A Look In The Mirror/Take Me Home, Country Roads/Fever/Love Gonna Walk Out On Me/Revolution/54-46 Was My Number/Sailing On

"But if you give positive words, that song lives forever" - Toots Hibbert

Toots Hibbert, although a reggae legend, was not a roots man, a Rasta or a DJ. His sound was a highly individualised gospelly soulful one that was almost unique among reggae artists. He successfully merged soul, gospel, blues and rock with a solid skanking reggae beat and this album, from 1973, was a classic example of that.

Got To Be There has Toots' churchy, growling voice taking us higher and the persuasive, soulful spirituality is continued on the intoxicating and uplifting In The Dark. Having A Party has Hibbert almost rapping his lines out, ad hoc over a gentle but insistent organ-based skank. "I'm from Jamaica - I want to do my Jamaican stuff..." he proclaims over an infectious rhythm. It is not the same song as the one of the same name on 2020's Got To Be Tough album.

Time Tough is an irresistible groove, with Hibbert once again sounding as if he is making it up as he goes along, so effortless is his vocal delivery. It is a classic Maytals track, full of intuitive, almost improvised soulful skank. The guitars and bass are just sumptuous. Hibbert tells us he will take us higher and higher, and he well and truly does. These first four tracks have been the very best of Toots & The Maytals, four better ones to start off a reggae album it would be hard to find. Ok yes, Marley, I know, but you know where I'm coming from.

I See You is a (comparatively) laid-back slightly country-ish gentle song backed by some New Orleans-style horns and a funky wah-wah guitar but any Toots song is invariably not that gentle due to the character of his appealingly gruff voice. Take A Look In The Mirror is another slow number, with another real soul vibe to it.

The Maytals make for a superb backing band - organ, skanking guitars, drums and strong horns - and at times they often sound like the Stax house band, such is their tight syncopation and punch.

A Toots classic is his wonderful take on John Denver's Take Me Home, Country Roads with "West Virginia" substituted for "West Jamaica". Hibbert sings most soulfully as the reggae one-drop drum sound drives the song along. It is a song that was always in my mind during the time I visited Jamaica. Fever sees a return to an edgier, livelier skank as Toots again delivers his lines in impromptu style commanding the band in Van Morrison style, instinctively.

Love Gonna Walk Out On Me is a ballad that begins slowly before bursting out into a mid-pace reggae rhythm, Revolution is a pleasant number before we get Toots' signature song - the iconic skinhead favourite 54-46 Was My Number, with its "give it to me one time, two times, three times, four times..." calling card. The final number, Sailing On has Toots on real throaty form on a bar-room lament of a song.

Energy, jubilation, devotion but not preachiness - Toots reaches out to all here, whatever their faith, just make sure you have one.

Panting by Archibald Steven Forrest

Reggae Got Soul (1976)

Rasta Man/Premature/So Bad/Six And Seven Books/I Shall Sing/Reggae Got Soul/Everybody Needs Lovin'/Living In The Ghetto/True Love Is Hard To Find/Never You Change

"Reggae is a message of consolation; a message of salvation" - Toots Hibbert

Released in 1976, this is more of what it says on the cover - Reggae Got Soul. Toots once more applies his soulful voice to classic reggae skanking beats. It you have read the other reviews I have done or indeed listened to any of his music you will know what he is about by now.

Rasta Man is a lengthy, five minute plus of sleepy, almost rock steady groove with Toots sounding less clear than he normally does, coming over a bit tired. That said, it has a relaxing laid-back groove to it. It has a great horn break at the end too. Overall it reminds me of Peter Tosh's I'm The Toughest. Premature is standard reassuringly rousing without being frantic Toots fare while So Bad has slight hints of Monkey Man about it. The saxophone break is very South African township in its melodic sound.

Six And Seven Books is a brassy piece of religious devotional fare and I Shall Sing, is a Van Morrison song - a true rarity from the Moondance sessions. Quite how Toots got hold of it is not clear. Reggae Got Soul is a big, thumping number dominated by an almost Native American-style drum beat. Everybody Needs Lovin' is an infectious piece of seductively soulful reggae with a fine rhythm to it and Toots on his best, gruffest vocal form. It is one of the album's best cuts. Another good one is up next too, the steady grind of Living In The Ghetto.

True Love Is Hard To Find is a mid-pace groover enhanced by some nice piano and the beautifully bass, lively sound of Never You Change closes the album.

There is not a whole lot more to be said about this album, it doesn't differ too much from the two 1973 releases other than it has a better sound quality than the original release of Funky Kingston. In fact, taking all the tracks into consideration, I think I prefer it to that one and it is also more consistent in quality than In The Dark but the important thing is possibly that the good tracks on here are not as good as the best ones on those two.

Got To Be Tough (2020)

Drop Off Head/Just Brutal/Got To Be Tough/Freedom Train/Warning Warning/Good Thing That You Call/Stand Accused/Three Little Birds/Having A Party/Struggle

"I loved his 'Three Little Birds' song an’ I told him I might just end up sing it one day. I did it over with his son, Ziggy Marley, for my label an’ I plan to release it soon” - Toots Hibbert

Veteran reggae front man Frederick “Toots” Hibbert is back, at the venerable age of 77, with his first album of original material in ten years. It is a mesmerising mix of rock, bluesy brass, funky soul and reggae which is not surprising, given that Hibbert was always far more blues, soul and gospel than he was roots.

Sly Dunbar is on drums and Zak Starkey plays guitar (something I didn’t know he did) to great effect on what is a very impressive-sounding, musically varied album.

Drop Off Head is a punchy, horn-powered raw-sounding grind as opposed to reggae. It is more deep funk than reggae in places. Check out those superb saxophone breaks. It reminds me of something else, something that isn’t reggae but I can’t put my finger on it - something from Robert Plant’s solo work maybe. Just Brutal is almost a rock song, with its huge, thumping beat, blaring horns, gospelly female call and response backing vocals and Hibbert growling away like a demented fire and brimstone preacher. Once again, this is a fair way removed from pure reggae. Hibbert says he “just doesn’t know what this world is coming to...”. You and me both, Toots.

A brassy UB40-esque reggae groove is heard on Got To Be Tough, the UB40 reference was a pertinent one because this is not a rootsy track, it is an accessible, commercially-sounding one. It is enhanced by a wailing rock guitar solo too. Freedom Train is a upbeat piece of organ and lively skanking powered gospelly rock. The horns punch their way into the track like one time boxer Hibbert would have done in his youth.

Warning Warning is the first song that is instantly recognisable as Toots & The Maytals - skanking along as it does like Pressure Drop, with Hibbert’s voice coming over in suitably gritty fashion. This is a great track. Good Thing That You Call is another muscular rock and horns number with Toots’ voice finally showing a few signs of age, but no matter, all respect to the great old man. Stand Accused is a big, bassy, robust thumper of a song - slow in pace but full of power and fervent resonance, augmented by an excellent dubby bit a minute or so in. There’s a melodica in there too, adding to the dubby feel.

Ziggy Marley joins Toots for an almost unrecognisable, horn-drenched and breakneck paced, almost psychedelic cover of Marley’s dad’s Three Little Birds. The two singers trade vocals like punches. It works, though, becoming virtually a new song. The typical Toots sound is there on the suitably energetic Having A Party while the closing Struggle once again perfectly merges rock and reggae, most gloriously. I love the Clash-esque riffs at the end too.

This is a really good, refreshing album from a mighty man who still has something valid to say  (many of the lyrics are admirably militant). You can’t keep the best of us down. Toots is one of the best.

Unfortunately, that last sentence now reads 'was' one of the best. The great, great Toots Hibbert sadly passed away on September 12th, 2020, aged 77. This album stands as his final testament. God bless you.

Reggae Greats

54-46 That's My Number/Reggae Got Soul/Monkey Man/Just Like That/Funky Kingston/Sweet And Dandy/Take Me Home Country Roads/Time Tough/Spiritual Healing/Pressure Drop/Peace Perfect Peace/Bam Bam

"Etty in a room a cry, mama said she must wipe her eye..."

While Bob Marley is obviously the Jamaican artist that everybody speaks of first, in reverential tones, respect must be given to Frederick “Toots” Hibbert, who is truly one if the great soulful reggae voices.

A mixture of middleweight boxer meets revivalist preacher, he has a gravelly, rough voice but also an intuitive vocal timing that could command a tune from beginning to end. Need evidence? Just listen to his classic 54-46 Was My Number. He masters it enough on the original cut, but performed live, it becomes a tour de force, which is quite apt, as Toots is a force of nature.

The upbeat ska-ish rock steady beat of Pressure Drop is just simply exhilarating as is Monkey Man. These are copper-bottomed classics of late 60s/early 70s reggae. Toots’s churchy growl just making them something really special. Other highlights are the catchy Time Tough; the gospelly fun tale of a Caribbean wedding that is Sweet And Dandy; the punchy reggae funk of Funky Kingston and Toots’ reggae take on John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads, with its “almost heaven - West Jamaica” opening lyric.

This is a more than acceptable introduction to this legendary reggae voice.

Frederick "Toots" Hibbert 1942 - 2020