Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Temptations and their Psychedelic Phase

I've always loved The Temptations, and would put them up there with The Impressions as my favorite vocal groups of all-time.  When most individuals think of The Temptations, they think of their earlier hits like "My Girl", "Ain't Too Proud To Beg", etc.  Most are unaware of their late 60's/early 70's output, which I actually find more fascinating.  By the late 60's, times were not only changing in our country but also in soul music as well.  Singers and songwriters in soul music were speaking out more in song, singing in protest of Vietnam, of the endless struggle of the black man in our society, basically songs in soul were becoming deeper than the "I love you" lyrics of earlier times.  Stevie Wonder was beginning to break free having to sing cover songs through Motown's directions, and was beginning to write his own songs with political messages.  Marvin Gaye released What's Going On, a politically charged album in protest of the war.  Groups like Sly & The Family Stone were releasing albums like There's A Riot Going On, tackling the heavy issues occurring everyday in the ghetto.  Above all, soul music was experimenting more with sound.  Fuzzed out guitars a la Funkadelic were becoming popular.  Drumming was funkier.  Many of the soul singers just sounded rougher.  And of course, image wise, the soul groups began looking different.  They grew their hair out, wore bell bottoms and paisley shirts.  While The Temptations didn't write their own songs, their main songwriter was Norman Whitfield, who was turned onto Sly & The Family Stone, and soon after began to write his own versions of Sly songs for The Temptations to record.  By the late 60's, The Temptations began an image overhaul musically, as Whitfield was writing songs like "Message From a Black Man", Don't Let the Joneses Get You Down", and "Slave", all sociopolitical messages that were atypical of The Temptations to sing up until this point.
Really, this era of The Temptations is enjoyable stuff and well worth checking out.  The double disc compilation Psychedelic Soul is well worth checking out, as it contains lots of essential soul music.  You could even say that a few of the tracks have a pocket-symphony quality of a soul version of Brian Wilson Smile era music.  Here's a few tracks from the psychedelic era of The Temptations that are worth listening to, starting with "Cloud Nine", the first track which really kicked off the new sound of The Temptations.

 "Psychedelic Shack" was released in a shorter-form as a single, but here is the extended six minute version.  Good stuff, and it is the same version that shows up on the double disc compilation Psychedelic Soul

I can't stress how many good tracks The Temptations recorded during this time.  Norman Whitfield was on a roll during this era, and you got to hand it to him that he was willing to change with the times.  In a later post, I will tackle previous Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks and his early solo albums, well worth checking out as well.
                           This is the look of a psychedelic band--The Temptations! 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Song o' the day (pt. 3)--T.G.I.F. (Get in the groove!)

Picked up Reuben Wilson's Set Us Free the other day (Half Price Books for $4!).  Reuben was a great jazz-soul organist, probably up there with Jimmy Smith as my favorite jazz organists ever.  Both had two great albums in the late 60's/early 70's (Jimmy Smith had Root Down and The Sermon, Reuben Wilson had Blue Mode and Set Us Free, released in 1971).  This track "Sho-Nuff Mellow" has a great groove, once it gets going around the 45 second mark.  Dig the congas/percussion, bluesy guitar, and the funky organ!  

Reuben Wilson's Set Us Free is a great album that contains everything from congas to sitars to a backing female choir.  Good stuff, and great music to get you in the groove for the weekend! 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I've been listening to these dudes a lot recently.  Cymande is one of those funk/soul groups from the early 70's that I've been told to check out by various people for quite awhile, and for some reason, have slept on this band forever.  Just an amazing, amazing groove that comes out of this band.  Interesting story in that the band formed in London, England but many of the members were from Jamaica and Guyana.  Supposedly they formed in the basement of a strip club in England, but I'm unsure if this is a myth or a true story.  Anyway, I highly recommend checking this band out more, as I just recently picked a compilation of their first two albums and it's great.  All killer, no filler, as they say.  Check out "Bra", one of my favorite tracks by Cymande.  

If that track sounds familiar to you, it's probably because you are a De La Soul fan, as they sampled "Bra" on their track "Change in Speak" off of their classic album 3 Feet High and Rising

Also, check out this track for more Cymande goodness!  This is "The Message", the first track I heard by Cymande that really turned me on to this band. 
I'd recommend picking up the Cymande album just titled Cymande, as it contains all 17 tracks off of their first two albums.  Essential stuff!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Prince Buster and March Madness

 I'm a big college basketball fan, mostly of the Washington Huskies, so it has been a painful day for me.  The Huskies lost in the NCAA Tournament to the North Carolina Tar Heels 86-83.  They played hard, but alas, it was not meant to be, and as of this afternoon, their season has come to a close.  They call the NCAA basketball tournament "March Madness" because it is just that, pure basketball madness, bliss and agony, depending on your favorite team.  March Madness is single-elimination (lose and you're out)  and arguably the 68 best teams in college basketball fight it out over the month of March.  I'm still hoping that someday I'll see my Huskies in the Final Four, as they've come close on a few occasions.  Maybe someday!

Anyway, watching March Madness unfold over this weekend kept reminding me of the early ska great, Prince Buster, and his track "Madness".  Their was a time I used to listen to Prince Buster almost daily, and thinking about that track while watching almost four days straight of college basketball made up want to pull out two albums of his singles that I have.  Prince Buster is up there with Desmond Dekker, Derrick Morgan, and Alton Ellis as my favorite early ska-reggae singers.

Prince Buster reminds me of summertime in Seattle (no better place to be in the summer!)  drinking Red Stripe beer and chilling in the sun.  Here he is, singing "Madness", Kingston, Jamaica's great, Prince Buster!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

In Honor of St. Patty's Day, a little Green for ya!

I've been listening to Al Green today in honor of St. Patty's Day (Green--color of St. Patty's--get it!).  I love all of his 70's albums, and of course Let's Stay Together, I'm Still in Love with You, and Call Me are great albums, but I've been listening to his first few albums recently, mainly this one:

and this one:
It's interesting to hear the early Green stuff--the Hi Records "sound" hasn't been solidified yet (the Willie Mitchell produced sound), so these two albums are definitely more raw than his later 70's albums.  Al's voice is more unrestrained, going into falsettos and yelps, whereas albums like Let's Stay Together, his vocals are definitely more restrained.  Check out this track, "Get Back Baby" off of Al Green is Blues, to hear the more unrestrained Al.
I probably like his next album, Al Green Gets Next to You, a little bit better, and you begin to hear Green establishing his trademark Hi Records sound.  The Doors cover "Light My Fire" is an interesting listen, as Green takes it to a place that I would've never thought before.  Dig the beginning verses of monologue by Al before he starts into the song (please ignore the cheesy NASCAR video that accompanies the song):
Always go green...Al Green.   Happy St. Patty's Day!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Soul for Sickies

So I'm on my third day of having this horrible cold/cough/stuffy ears and head.  I can barely breathe, and it's hard to think.  But above all, it's hard to listen to music!  Isn't that the worst!  There isn't anything worse than wanting to crank up the volume on a Bobby Womack compilation that I was grooving to the other day, but now I can't handle it because the music and vocals are just too noisy for me right now.  I tried listening to a Dixie Hummingbirds gospel-soul album that I bought last week and had to turn it off immediately because the vocals were pushed too far up in the mix and it started giving me a headache. 

This problem got me thinking more about the music I enjoy and the music I can't enjoy right now due to not feeling 100%.  In between my frequent naps I've begun noticing what soul music works for the sickie and what doesn't (I think you could also exchange "sickie" for "hangover" and it would work just as well!)

What doesn't work:  Too loud of vocals.  O.k., I LOVE Etta James!  She is one of my five favorite female singers of all-time.  I love the passion and intensity in her vocals, but unfortunately her vocals are too much for the sickie soul.  Even on albums like At Last where some of the music and songs are relatively quiet, Etta just doesn't work for the sickie soul because that voice, as wonderful as it is, is just too powerful for the sickie soul to handle.  Tell Mama:  The Muscle Shoals Sessions really doesn't work either, as both the vocals and music are loud.  You could put in Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, and Donny Hathaway in there as well (all up there as my favorite singers--maybe because I love them so much it makes more focus and listen to their vocals more which is tough to do when sick?).  

What works:  Soothing vocals.  Bill Withers works on so many levels in regards to this.  Besides Withers possessing a soothing voice, he is also one of the best songwriters ever.  The man never wrote a bad song, Really, a sickie can listen to his first three albums, Just as I am, Still Bill, and 'Justments all the way through and even though there are songs that are more upbeat than others, they never overpower and bother a sickie's headache.  I would also put Lou Bond's album Lou Bond up there, as well as any of Terry Callier's albums, specifically Occasional Rain or What Color is Love?  Soothing vocals are the key that soul singers like Callier, Bond, and Withers all possess to a T.  Also, I could throw in Marvin Gaye as well, even though maybe it's a bit unexpected.  I was suprised to notice that I could listen to Marvin Gaye yesterday with ease (Let's Get It On), but later I did think about the fact that his vocals are somewhat soothing, even if the orchestration and music of some of his songs can overpower at times.

What doesn't work:  Busy orchestration/overpowering music.  Any of the Gamble/Huff Philly Soul-style music does not soothe the sickie soul.  It's fabulous music, and on an average day I love to listen to these albums, but they don't work on a sick day.  The O'Jays Backstabbers?  No.  Jerry Butler The Iceman Cometh?  Hell no.   Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes?  I said NO!   

This concludes our talk about what to listen to, and what not to listen to, if you're a soul sickie.  Hopefully, you found this to be enlightening, and if you have any further suggestions, feel free to do so!  In the meantime, here are a few tracks that are soothing for sickie soul, in case you are struggling as I am, as I am now heading back to bed.  Enjoy!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Best Albums/Singles of 2010

OK, I admit that I don't listen to much new music.  Something about the production gets to me, as it's usually so slick and overproduced.  Honestly, I just like the way music from the 60's and 70's sounds much more.  It's more raw, organic, and feels real.  Don't get me wrong--I'm sure there is good music out there these days, but when someone tells me "oh, if you like 'fill-in-the blank (great 60's/70's soul singer)'  then you should definitely check out 'fill-in-the-blank (new retro soul singer)" and I'll almost always be disappointed and I end up turning off the new album and end up putting on Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers or something like that.

Nevertheless, even though I'm severely late on a best of 2010 album list, I thought enough of these albums to mention them in this blog:

1.  Flying Lotus "Cosmogramma"---This is really the only masterpiece album of 2010.  Steven Ellison has created a brilliant work, a beautiful mixture of equal parts J Dilla and Alice Coltrane (he is her nephew).  It's electronic, but organic as well.  Instrumental hip hop/jazz/electronic at it's finest.  Actually, Flying Lotus is really their own musical genre. 

2.  Four Tet "There is Love in You"---One of the few electronic artists I truly enjoy.  Great beats, meditative, good head music, great to listen to on headphones.  Their best album since "Rounds".  

3.  Spoon "Transference"---I've been a Spoon fan for years, and this one doesn't disappoint.  I'm glad they went back to the more lo-fi approach of some of their earlier albums.  Still similar influences (Wire, 60's garage), and still great.

4.  Madlib "Medicine Show 3:  Beat Konducta in Africa"---Really, I've gotta give major props to Madlib, and most of the Medicine Show albums (he's been releasing one a month!) have been entertaining, but this one is definitely my favorite.  Good samples of 60's/70's Afro-pop songs with Madlib beats, spliced with what sounds like an advertisement on African tourism.  Great stuff!

5.  Strong Arm Steady "In Search of Stoney Jackson"---Almost everything Madlib produces is gold, and I've got to give the nod this one over the Madlib-produced Guilty Simpson album earlier this year.  Madlib uses great soul samples, along with great beats.  Not hugely into the rapping style of the mc's, but I've grown to like them the more I listen to them.

6.  The Black Keys "Brothers"---These two dudes almost never disappoint.  This is probably their most soulful, and diverse album.  I love that they recorded this at the famed Muscle Shoals studios, and they cover one of my favorite Jerry Butler tracks "Never Gonna Give You Up". 

7.  Kanye West "My Beautiful Dark, Twisted Fantasy"---I wanted to not like this album because I'm not a fan of Kanye West the person, but no one can deny that this is a very good album,and that Kanye is a great producer and rapper.   I don't agree with the masterpiece tag being thrown around by critics in regards to this album, but I would call it a very solid album.  "Power" is my favorite track, as I gotta give props to Kanye sampling my favorite King Crimson track.

8.  Cee-Lo Green "F**k U" single---"The Ladykiller" is a pretty spotty album overall.  I would say I really enjoy about 4 of the tracks (including the single, and probably the ones most 60's/70's soul influenced).  However,  "F**K U" is definitely the single of the year, just a brilliant pop song.  Who could not like this track? 

I listened to many, many more albums in 2010, but these are the albums I've listened to more than 10 times in 2010, which obviously meant they stuck out more than the other releases this year.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Song o' the day (pt. 2)

The Impressions are one of my favorite vocal groups ever, of any genre...period.  They produced two great talents in Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler, who both later had great solo careers.  In The Impressions mid-60's heyday, there are only a few vocal groups to match the harmonizing, songwriting (actually, not a lot of groups were writing their own songs, so maybe songwriting-wise, none can compare to The Impressions), and lyrics, which as the mid-60's moved into the late-60's, they became more politically oriented (probably of Curtis Mayfield's influence more than anything else, as seen by his first few solo albums).  They had some huge hits in their day, like "People Get Ready" (covered by the likes of the Chambers Brothers), "You Must Believe Me" (later covered by Don Covay), "Gypsy Woman" (later covered by Joe Bataan).  The track, "This Is My Country", is a later period Impressions song, largely composed by Mayfield, and even though it wasn't one of their biggest hits, somehow it's always been one of my favorites of theirs.  I love the horns that introduce the song, the "woo-hoo-hoo's" vocals that follow, and Curtis's statement that regardless of your gender, color, or where you came from, we should all consider this as "my country".   "This is My Country" was a strong statement for an African-American to make at that time in song, and it was needed, as for many decades, most felt they didn't have a voice in our country.  "This is My Country" went along with the civil rights movement during this time, so it's a strong statement, and a wonderful song.   Enjoy one of my favorite tracks by The Impressions! 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Stevie Wonder: Under Review

As anyone with an interest in music knows, Stevie Wonder is one of soul music's greats.  Stevie had a string of hits in the early 60's as "Little Stevie Wonder", and a few very solid albums in the mid 60's such as "Down to Earth" and "For Once In My Life".  Here's a track off of "Down to Earth" called "Hey Love", which is actually one of my favorite Stevie Wonder tracks, and probably my favorite of his earlier period.

It was around 1971 when he began an amazing string of five consecutive albums from 1971-76 that are all arguably considered masterpieces to many individuals.  The first great Stevie album is "Music of My Mind".

It's amazing to think that by this time Stevie was in the music business for over 10 years, as he was still only 21 years old.  By this time, Stevie was largely writing/recording all of his own music, and for the most part, he played every instrument on this album.  "Music of My Mind" is an extremely funky album, and is one of my favorite of Stevie's albums (though that opinion changes by the month, depending what mood I am in). 

One of my favorite tracks off this album is "Happier than the Morning Sun".

Next came Stevie's second masterpiece, the 1972 album "Talking Book", which contained hits like "Superstition", "You are the Sunshine of My Life", among others.  This is an amazing album that probably had more commercial appeal than his previous album.   Actually, if I had to take one Stevie Wonder album to a desert island, it would probably be this one.  "Talking Book" is a sentimental favorite of mine, as a child this was an album that my family spun quite frequently, so it was the one I was most familiar with for many years.  Check out Stevie playing "Superstition" live on Sesame Street!

"Innervisions", "Fulfillingness First Finale" (try saying that three times fast) and "Songs in the Key of Life" are the final three albums that complete Stevie's brilliant five year run of masterpiece albums.  As with many double albums, "Songs in the Key of Life" is a little over-indulgent, but so is "The White Album", and they are both brilliant albums, warts and all.  "Innervisions" is brilliant, as his "FFF", and "FFF" could be considered Stevie's most underrated album.

I've been thinking about Stevie Wonder's career a lot recently, mainly in that I was trying to think of another singer-songwriter that had as creative and successful of a five year period that Stevie had in the early to mid-70's, and could only think of a few:   1962-67 Dylan, 1970's Bowie (although that's debatable--"Aladdin Sane", and "Young Americans" are spotty albums through I enjoy both of them), and Miles Davis (the 50's period with Coltrane, through Gil Evans and even his group with Herbie Hancock) are the only three who could touch that creative of a five year period as Stevie Wonder in the 70's

After 1976, Stevie's career is more spotty.  He still had some good songs here and there, but could certainly get cheesy lyrically ("I Just Called to Say I Love You"), but so could Dylan in the 70's and Bowie in the 80's, and Miles in the 80's--but that's a whole other topic.  Nevertheless, considering Stevie's body of work--I mean, even if you took out this brilliant 1971-76 time period, he still would've been considered as a great Motown singer, but once Stevie reached his creative peak in the early 1970's, he went from being a great singer and musician to a great songwriter and artist--certainly one of the best in soul music history, and also in the history of great American singer-songwriters.  
                                                      STEVIE WONDER!