Archives for the month of: June, 2012

Album Review: Faithful Man, Lee Fields & The Expressions, March 2012 (Truth & Soul)

First, a brief history of retro soul

I started noticing “retro soul” or “soul revival” when the distinctive music from the 60s starting emanating from unlikely and modern sources. Most notably, German electronic music production team, Jazzanova, released Of All the Things in 2008 (Sonar Kollektiv). Ten days later, Seal released the aptly titled, Soul (Warner Bros.) featuring a cover of Sam Cooke’s 1964 tune, “A Change is Gonna Come,” which dovetailed almost purposefully with the Obama ’08 campaign.

Then, like a car you never notice on the road until you buy the same model, retro soul was everywhere. Hip-hop giant Raphael Saadiq had released The Way I See It (Sony BMG) the same year. Earlier in the decade, the Daptone Records label landed on us like a time machine from 1968. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings looked and sounded like a 60s soul/go-go band with all the rhythm, horn, and sass of the best of that era.

Lee Fields & The Expressions, Faithful Man

lffmHalf a century after soul music pioneers like Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin gave us this music, Lee Fields & The Expressions have released an album that feels more real than retro.

Unlike the modern-day tributes mentioned above, Faithful Man has an authenticity in the music, the vocals, and yes, the soul. Arrangements are stripped down, tight, and unassuming. The rhythm section is solid but not overdone.

Wish you were here and the title track are painfully good. Walk on through that door is a rock-steady groove with classic studio backing vocals. You’re the kind of girl is a hit, pure and simple. All the tracks are strong and they don’t render this album a one-trick pony, unlike most genre tributes. The reason is the vocals.

Lee Fields is not just an aspiring singer mimicking a style he heard on some old records (he actually recorded his first 45 rpm record in 1969). This album is new but Lee Fields himself is vintage. His vocals take a hold of you. They evoke the yearning of Otis Redding, the faith of Sam Cooke, and the coolness of Ray Charles.

Whether you are a fan of the classics from 50 years ago or caught on to the revival in the last decade, Faithful Man will quickly slip itself into one of your musical mainstays.

Feature: Disco – the rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated

Those of us old enough to remember the late 1970s witnessed a mass and abrupt rejection of disco as that decade closed out. The public’s about-face was so swift that the music was erased from our conciousness. Unlike the more resilient psychadelic rock and heavy metal from the 60s and early 70s, disco truly was dead, just as the t-shirt announced.

Thirty years later, I can appreciate disco’s lasting impact. The hi-hat dominated rhythm tracks, the squelchy guitar lines, the strong female vocals, and the orchestral strings are once again markers of coolness in today’s carefully curated underground DJ mixes.

Where did disco come from?

Several credit the partnership of Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer as the beginning of disco. Summer’s Love to Love You and I Feel Love are trancy an innovative departures from the folk-based love tunes of that era and introduced electric instruments in a much bigger way than pop music had seen.

Although Summer reached #1 with Love to Love You in 1975, there were several examples of earlier tunes with the disco sound, including 1972’s One Night Affair by Jerry Butler and Rock the Boat by the Hue’s Corporation a year later.

Arguably, the context of where the sound was heard was as important as the musicians that created it. The alternative nightclub scenes in Philadelphia and New York gave this music a space. These were not mainstream but would later evolve into the discotheques that would explode in popularity in the mid- to late 70s.

Disco was good, then some of it was bad, then it just became pop

To me, disco was at its best when it was grounded in funk and soul. And much of that era’s music is just that. KC and the Sunshine Band, Chic, MFSB and, The Jackson 5 all featured substantial songwriting with a musician’s pedigree. These qualities underpinned the disco treatment in songs like KC’s Boogie Shoes, MFSB’s The Sound of Philadelphia, and Chic’s Good Times.

Later in the 70s, with the advancement of electronic instruments and sequencers, disco got lazy. Acts like the Village People created anthems with the disco sound that was more a product of engineering and marketing than musicianship and songwriting. Some of the sparse internet reading I found on this was at www.scaruffi.com.

With disco’s death knell, the muscians and producers that lived and breathed it in the 70s moved on to pop music in the 80s. Nile Rodgers of Chic, Michael Jackson, and others transformed themselves into the kings of pop and would even outlast the next niche genre on the horizon: new wave.

Without disco, we would not have house

As disco transitioned to the mainstream in the late 70s, the underground movement that spawned it was already infatuated with something new: Garage music. Developed to a large extent in the Chicago and New York underground club scenes, Garage or Warehouse music borrowed from the melodies and vocal stylings of disco but backed it up with heavy, driving beats. DJs like Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, and Joey Negro were behind some of the hits and popular acts of that era and can be viewed as the forefathers of the modern club DJ.

As garage and warehouse eventually morphed into the more popular “house” music, the underground came above ground. One of the milestones of this mainstreaming of house music was the massive hit, West End Girls, by the Pet Shop Boys. A testament to disco’s influence, one of the Boys himself, Neil Tennant, is quoted as saying he used “Barry White chords” in the composition.

Where is disco today?

Simply put, the disco sound is peppered through pop music and continues to inspire dance, electronic, and house music. In particular, anthem pop acts like Lady GaGa, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber employ bold electronic arrangements that were innovated more than 30 years ago by disco producers like Moroder.

Outside of the mainstream (where great music lives), the selections of today’s hot DJs in the rare groove and jazz/funk genres are starting to feature hits from our disco days. Underground producer KON, recently released fresh and stunning re-works of the Bee Gees Staying Alive and Cerrone’s Hooked on You.

But for me, the find of the year and one of the main reasons I was inspired to write this post was an original by Pete Dunaway from 1974, courtesy of the Sport of Selection website (home of the Friday Night Session radio program). The track, Supermarket has generous string and flute arrangements that place it squarely in the 70s. But the rhythm track, raw and naturalistic vocals, and structure of the song allow it to stand up against the hippest releases from today’s underground scene.