Monday, April 30, 2007

Just bear with...
posted by O.W.

It's been a busy few weeks so I haven't had been able to knock out too many posts in the meanwhile. Still in the midst of travels so while I'll try to get at least one post up soon, it may be another week or so until I can resume any "normal" pace. In the meantime, enjoy this:

Friday, April 27, 2007

Like Whoa...
posted by O.W.

That's just the starting point.

(By the way, if you're looking at the image and "don't get it" probably shouldn't be listening to music at all).

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Monday, April 23, 2007

NPR Songs of the Day (April 2007 Update)
posted by O.W.

Other songs I've been writing about for NPR: You should definitely check out the Bob &'s from a sweet soul album, If This World Were Mine, originally recorded in the early 1970s but never saw release until now. Not surprisingly, you can thank the folks at Daptone for helping bring it back to life after 35+ years of languishing. It's a really superb album - lo-fi and earnest with some beautiful singing and texture.


Monday, April 16, 2007

The Intruders, Impressions and Superlatives: Bump It Loud
posted by O.W.

The Intruders: Together
From The Intruders Are Together (Gamble, 1967). Also on Cowboys to Girls: The Best Of

The Impressions: We're a Winner
From We're a Winner (Universal/MCA, 1968)

Superlatives: I Don't Know How
From 7" (Westbound, 1969). Also on Westbound Sound

Had a grand time at Bumpshop over last weekend. Here's the thing you have to understand: Bumpshop might start up around the same time (10pm) but they go until 4am. As routine as this might be for any NYer, it's damn near incredible for folks like me, stuck in cities like SF and LA where most nights begin winding down around 1:30am since the bar staff doesn't want to stay there a minute past 2am if they help it.

Better yet, the last 30-40 minutes of Bumpshop winds down all the uptempo funk and just rides out on sweet soul and hand-clapping goodness; some tracks just leave you, head bowed, in reverent contemplation. As you'd expect, resident DJs Chairman Mao and Jared kilt it (you have to respect DJs hardcore enough to put a song - not otherwise available on vinyl - onto acetate, just so they can spin it out. CD lovers will no doubt shake their head at such things).

It was a good night, not the least of which is that Mao's last song of the evening was this incredible sweet soul 45 from the Bay Area (ssssshhh) that was a nod to me (even though, alas, I no longer reside in the Bay).

For people in NY (or visiting NY), do yourself a favor and take yourself out to the next Bumpshop in May - Miles from L.A.'s Funky Sole/Root Down/Breakestra will be the special guest - but seriously - stay to the end, even if it means having to drink a triple-mocha-latte-chino ahead of time. Leaving earlier is like having a fantastic meal but then skipping dessert. Don't do that.

In any case, there's nothing like listening to four straight hours of soul/funk/jazz/Latin to really 1) bring out the trainspotter in one (, I have no shame in admitting that I was giraffing over the DJ booth more than few times) and 2) make you realize how much insanely good music there is out there. Thus inspires today's post.

I had more or less forgotten the Intruders' classic "Together" until Jared played it last night (backed with a cover version that's now parked at the top of my want (nay, need) list) and good god, what an insanely great song. The chorus, especially played loud, is incredible. On a related side note: for many years, I pushed this kind of soul to the background but in the last year or so, it's all I really crave. Musical tastes are strange that way, no?

Speaking of stuff pushed to the background, I clearly have not been giving "We're a Winner" enough play since I had forgotten how awesome this song was. So nice, they played it twice at Bumpshop and frankly, if they had put it on repeat a few times more, I doubt a soul would have complained. This is one of those songs I wish I had a time machine for, just to see how people reacted to it back in the day.

Speaking of which, this might seem painfully obvious but since I spend the bulk of my time listening to music through headphones or at home, I forget how the dynamics of listening to music in a club environment changes how they come across. Case in point, the Superlatives 45 is one of the first soul 45s I ever bought when I started "buying soul 45s." I knew nothing about the group but I liked how it sounded - doo wop harmonies but armed with a monstrous backing drummer. It's been a personal favorite but I had never heard it pumped over a speakers and when they dropped it the other night...*whistle*...incredible.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Mark Ronson: Gettin' It Covered
posted by O.W.

Mark Ronson: Valerie (feat. Amy Winehouse) + Just (feat. Phantom Planet)
From Version (Columbia, 2007)

Version is already available in the UK (as of last week) but won't be coming state-side for a couple of months. The conceit of the album is very simple: take a smattering of mostly UK (and a few American) alt-rock songs and give it Ronson's customized retro-funk/soul twist. As someone who's all into covers (obviously), I take special interest in a project like this since it's both all about covers and moreover, an interesting experiment in pop music making for someone with Ronson's current cache amongst the musically hip (*cough cough* soulful and soulless alike).

I'll be writing a formal review of the album down the road so I'll spare the same approach here except to say, for an album of covers, the source material is hardly obvious to anyone outside the world of UK/US alt-rock. This doesn't inherently hurt the album - the songs can stand on their own, especially as "Valerie" attests too - without one knowing what the O.G. sounds like but it does raise a question of who the intended audience is here. Do Radiohead or Kaiser Chief fans want to hear familiar songs remade as if by Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns? Or likewise, do QSO/Daptone fans want to hear that sound applied to the Smiths with Daniel Merryweather singing? (To answer the latter - probably not. The song is pretty horrid on both levels).

For what works, I have to say - Winehouse's version of "Valerie" is an instant winner. She's already performed this during her recent mini-tour and there's an acoustic version that folks have been circulating. The song's genealogy is under some dispute - the song is mostly associated with the Zutons (if you just asked, "who are the Zutons?" you're not alone) but others claim the song originally was on a demo by the Jam but not got released. As my wife said, "it sounds very Paul Weller," (upon which my friend quipped, "except bad." Ouch). History aside, it's a very catchy song and if you already like Amy (as clearly, many of my readers do), you'll like this and if you don't know her, it's not a bad introduction to Ms. Winehouse's style.

"Just" appeared earlier on an album of all Radiohead covers and I can't say I'm mad at this at all (same goes for that Cuban remake of "High and Dry" from last year). The production is a bit overcooked here for my tastes - it's fun but could have stood to be stripped down more - but I can't say I'm resistant to its charms.

As for the cover of Britney Spears' "Toxic" on here by Ol Dirty Bastard and Tiggers...uh,'s just that one alone. Very, very alone.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Harold Melvin, Stanley Turrentine, INI: Here's to Hope
posted by O.W.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes: Hope We'll Be Together Soon
From To Be True (Philly Int'l, 1975). Also on If You Don't Know Me By Now.

Stanley Turrentine:
Hope We'll Be Together Soon
From Everybody Come On Out (Fantasy, 1975)

INI: Krossroads
From Center of Attention (unreleased Elektra, 1996)

Sample hounds should enjoy this post but really, my inspiration was just enjoying how great a tune Melvin and the Blue Notes' "Hope We Can Be Together Soon" is, both in terms of the musical arrangement as well as the vocal duet on the track between Sharon Paige and Melvin (with a little cameo shot by Teddy P). I believe the highly descriptive "mad soulful" would be quite apropos here. Seriously, beautiful tune.

Turrentine's take on it is...well, I'll be honest...a little cheesy (sorry, but sax jazz in that era was very hard to take serious), but what I enjoy about it is its interpolation of that distinctive opening on the original but flipped with different instrumentation for a funkier sound.

Fans of Chi Ali will no doubt recognize Turrentine's version since it was liberally sampled to craft "Age Ain't Nothin' But a #" but more casual hip-hop fans may not have heard INI's "Krossroads" before since it appeared on their then-unreleased album, Center of Attention from the mid-90s (that album had so many killer Pete Rock productions, seriously). I thought it be nice to give those folks a chance to peep how Melvin's original was put to use.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Sam Cooke + Aretha Frankllin: Running Ever Since
posted by O.W.

Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come
From Ain't That Good News (RCA, 1964)

Aretha Franklin: A Change Is Gonna Come
From I Never Loved a Man (Atlantic, 1967)

I recently crashed at a friend's place after staying up to an ungodly hour. Both of us were groggy later that morning but instead of firing up some coffee, the first order of business was putting on some music and he put on Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." I was still hazy but Cooke's piercing vocals cut through any fog and demand you acknowledge the power and poignancy of their meaning. My friend leaned back in his chair and wistfully offered, "I don't think there's a better way to start the day than this." I didn't disagree.

Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" is one of those watershed songs that leaves the musical landscape transformed. Once you've heard it, understood what the song meant to the social times and more importantly, bore witness to the terror, fragility and transcendent hope in Cooke's voice, it's impossible to undo the shift in perception and consciousness that moment provokes. Here is a song that simultaneously threatens to destroy you and heal you and this duality seeps into every gut-wrenching note Cooke can squeeze out.

Indeed, Cooke himself was purportedly afraid of the song, afraid what people would think once they understood that the "change" he spoke of wasn't meant for himself but was an allegory for America itself. Cooke feared the possible repercussions for crafting a song with such a subtle but potent political message. Though he recorded it in 1963 and would include it during his shows, he didn't make a major push to have it released as a single and indeed, its life on the record charts came only after Cooke had been killed; the single dropped just 11 days after his death in late 1964.

At the same time, as lore also has it, Cooke was compelled to record the song after hearing Dylan's "Blowin In the Wind" and felt that he should play a role, as an artist and icon, in trying to voice an opinion and sentiment on what was happening during those tumultuous times.

As both an idea as well as performance, it's impossible to listen to this and not wonder what would have happened had Cooke not died in '64. Especially as the rest of the R&B world began to move towards embracing the social movements of the era, what role would Cooke have ended up playing as one of soul's elders?

What's helped with the recogniton the song's received is how it's become a staple for later soul artists to cover. My friend's philosopohy is basically, "I don't need/want to hear any other version save Cooke's" and I can respect that - there's something definitive about the original that deserves to be treated as a singular achievement.

However, I do have a soft spot for Aretha's version and to me, it's a worthy complement to Cooke's original for a few reasons. Quite poignant is that Franklin was a friend and contemporary of Cooke's. She says as much on the added prelude to the song - "there's an old friend that I once heard say something that touched my heart and it began this way..."

More than that, she breathes her own spirit into the song in such a way where it feels more distinct than, say, hearing Jerry Butler or even Otis Redding cover the song, even though both men deliver powerful versions. It's the way that Aretha inflects her notes, adds her own, subtle touches to the arrangement, and perhaps most importantly, that's Aretha at the piano herself, playing alongside a notably hushed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. It conveys even more of a sense of intimacy and truly, love that Aretha is extending to her late friend. Thus, the song feels like a dedication, an elegy, and an anthem all that once, simultaneously paying tribute to Cooke and his original vision but allowing Aretha the space to put her own definitive mark on the song as well.

I don't try to choose between which version I like better. I just play both.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Willie Hutch, Project Pat, UGK: You Choose This
posted by O.W.

Willie Hutch: I Choose You
From The Mack OST (Motown, 1973)

Project Pat: Choose U
From Layin' Da Smack Down (Loud, 2002)

UGK feat. Outkast: International Players Anthem
From U.G.K. (forthcoming 2007)

At this point in time, it's more than clear that Three Six Mafia's DJ Paul and Juicy J looooooove them some Willie Hutch. Actually, who doesn't love them some Willie Hutch? But in the case of Three Six, they found Hutch so twice, they used him thrice...

That new UGK song feat. Outkast is basically a straight loop from Hutch's "I Choose You," one of the songs from the The Mack soundtrack and if folks thought it sounded familiar at all, it's because Project Pat used the same exact loop (minus the drum programs on UGK's version) for his 2002 song, "Choose U." Three Six basically resurrected the track for UGK (and they appear on "Players Anthem" which is the earlier version of "Int'l Players Anthem" except with Three Six appearing on there instead of Outkast).

No complaints here - I don't care what version the song appears in: Hutch's original, Project Pat's or UGK's tracks - they all sound amazing which really bespeaks how gifted an arranger and producer Hutch was. "I Choose You" has this enormous sound to it that it's easy to get caught up in its swelling vocals and strings. (Somewhere, Kanye is wondering why he didn't f--- with this first).

In general, I think it's a very good idea for more rappers to rhyme over Hutch beats. Just sayin'.

Oh, and before I forget, I'm not 100% sure what Andre 3000 says at the beginning of "International Players Anthem," but just he way he says a phrase like, "project your heart, three stacks" makes his talk of dippin' spaceships and uncertain trips to the altar sound like something you really should know about, whatever he actually is saying. It's just good to hear Dre rhyming more. (See Devin the Dude's "What a Job" for another example).
Consider this a lame mea culpa: when I originally posted this, I was rushing to knock it out before I left town and had only sat with the song a few times thru. Then, I was listening to "Int'l Players Anthem" on the subway, running somewhere between Manhattan and Brooklyn and suddenly, Andre's verses made ridiculously clear sense, so much so, I feel pretty $^#&^ stupid for making it sound like he was on some superciphertifical level before when really, his verse isn't that's just incredibly well-written. Provided, I probably wouldn't have figured out the three stacks bit without either help or more time, and I thought "spaceship" referred to something more astral than being, you know, a car, but all said, it's a brilliant verse of love, regret and caution that is neither Mims-plistic (yeah, that just happened) nor Kool Kethian but just great songwriting. Did I already mention how great it is to hear 3000 rhyming more?

By the way, for anyone in New York City this weekend, I highly recommend you check out Bumpshop. At the very least, yours truly will be loitering around there that eve.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

J-Ro: Drinking Alone
posted by O.W.

J-Ro: You Call This Love
From B-Boy Funk (Juju, forthcoming 2007)

J-Ro: That's Likwit
From 818 Antics (Juju, 2007)

Downloaded "You Call This Love," this off the innanet and to be honest, I wasn't expecting much from it on the onset - the Alkaholiks' last effort was rather underwhelming and a J-Ro solo album didn't encourage me to raise expectations. However, I was really taken with this...times have come a long way when a hip-hop love (or anti-love) song meant something as syrupy as LL Cool J's "I Need Love." I hope it's a trend that continues to improve, not just because it offers a topical alternative, but it's nice to hear rappers speaking on something emotional. The cameo rapper is ****

"That's Likwit" comes off J-Ro's 818 Antics mixtape and hell, you know the Diamond D fan in me can never pass up a time to plug a song dropped over "Freestyle (Yo, That's That Shit!)"


Monday, April 02, 2007

Retro Soul: A Basic (and we mean basic) Primer
posted by O.W.

Amy Winehouse: He Can Only Hold Her (Live)
From a live recording from The Astoria, London (2/19/07)

Amy Winehouse: Rehab (Desert Eagle Remix)
From label (Universal Republic, 2007)

The Poets of Rhythm: It Came Over Me
From Practice What You Preach (Soulciety/Daptone, 1993/2006)

Sharon Jones: You Better Thing Twice
From 45 (Desco, 1998). Also available on Spike's Choice.

The Poets of Rhythm: Smilin'
From Discern/Define (Quannum, 2001)

Lee Fields feat. the Expressions: Honey Dove
From 7" (Truth and Soul, 2005). Also on Fallin' Off the Reels.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: All Over Again
From Naturally (Daptone, 2005)

Alice Russell: High Up On The Hook
From My Favorite Letters (Tru Thoughts, 2005)

Breakestra: Hiding (QSO Remix)
From Stand Up EP (Ubiquity, 2006)

Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators: A Perfect Kind of Love
From Keep Reachin' Up (Timmion, 2005)

Bonus: Nellie McKay: Won't U Please B Nice?
From Get Away From Me (Sony, 2004)

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: What Have You Done For Me Lately?
From Dap Dippin' (Daptone, 2002)

The Retro Soul Primer Master Mix (all 12 songs in one).

Ok, I promised this post a few weeks ago and here it is.[1]

Note: this is NOT meant to be an end-all, be-all, definitive guide to "retro soul" (which I'll define in a moment). It's merely a primer to sketch out a combination of what I think are the key recordings in the lineage as well as a few personal favorites. The idea was indeed inspired by Amy Winehouse's new Back to Black since I see her, thus far, as the most visible face on this "movement" (if one wants to call it that) and I thought it'd be a good way to celebrate both her success as well as point out the larger community of artists that she's now fallen in with.

I start with Amy herself, beginning with "He Can Only Hold Her," a song that's on the album and that she also has been performing in concert. Even though the version here was recorded in London, whereas I saw her in Hollywood, she did the same set (more or less) at both shows. In both, she and her back-up singers - as you can hear here - slide into a rendition of "Doo Wop (That Thing)" by Lauryn Hill at the end of the song. I thought it was a cool moment, especially since (as you can hear) the crowd gets into it but it's a little funny too since Winehouse sounds a lot like Hill (not that there's anything wrong with that but it needs to be noted).

The second Winehouse song is something I downloaded directly through Universal Republic, the "Desert Eagle" remix of "Rehab" which uses, at the beginning, an interpolation of the same beat once used by Pudgee for his song, "Think Big" (which is better known for a cameo by Biggie as well as Lord Tariq).

Ok - now this is where the history lesson begins. First of all, retro soul. This is a term that I think is useful is distinguishing this style of soul from the more commonly heard "neo soul". The latter - exemplified by Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, D'Angelo, Angie Stone, etc. - is contemporary R&B that's clearly influenced by classic soul aesthetics but, for the most part, would never be confused with a vintage Motown or Stax song.

In contrast, retro soul deliberately plays with the listener's sense of time and era by crafting music that replicates the production style of vintage soul; in some cases, enough so that you may not have a sense of when the recording was actually made. At one point, the more "authentic" a song can sound as if it were from the past, the closer it achieved its ambitions. However, in more recent years, I think this has evolved to where complete duplication isn't as necessary, especially as artists want more leeway to move in, but there's still that unmistakable "sound" of the music which clearly is built off the styles of the past.

The great grand-daddy of this movement is likely Germany's - yes, Germany's - Poets of Rhythm who, all the way back in 1993, put out a retro soul/funk album, Practice What You Preach that has since become a collector's item in its own right (it's been reissued twice which says a lot about its popularity). The album was mostly funk-oriented (like most of retro soul up until more recently) but "It Came Over Me" as one of the few soul ballads that found its way onto the album. To me, it's just fascinating that in 1993, there was already enough of a nostalgia/yearning for the '60s/'70s era of R&B that these kind of songs were already being crafted.

However, the main push in retro soul began a few years later with the founding of Desco Records (now defunct) which made a major effort to press up 45s and LPs for artists like Lee Fields, Joseph Henry, the Soul Providers and Sharon Jones - the first lady of retro soul. "You Better Thing Twice" (and no, that's not a typo) wasn't her very first single for Desco but was part of that early batch of releases. Desco held it down for a number of years and upon its dissolution, it gave birth to two labels: Soul Fire and Daptone.

I've posted the Lee Fields before but it bears a second run; it's so damn buttery. Fields was another former Desco artist who now records with Truth and Soul and this version of "Honey Dove," recorded with the Expressions, is an update on the original version which appeared on Fields' 2002 Problems album. It's such a great song and it shows how retro soul has the potential to create these "new classics" by artists who never had their chance back in the day but who've found the career starts later in life.

Sharon Jones is back (and now we've moved up to her Daptone era), this time with my favorite song off her Naturally album from a couple years back: "All Over Again." I liked it so much, in fact, I comped it for Soul Sides Vol. 1 (but ya'll already knew that, right?). Most of her earlier material was in the vein of funky divas like Marva Whitney and Lyn Collins but "All Over Again" shows that she's equally adept at cutting a powerful ballad and I hope this means she'll be doing more. It's worth also noting that by this time in her career, it's Jones and the Dap-Kings together (they come as a unit, more or less) and for those who forgot, the Dap-Kings are also Winehouse's touring band and some of their members were part of Amy's studio band as well.

The Alice Russell is also from a few years back - I had known about her based on her collaborations with the Quantic Soul Orchestra but I had never heard her solo material and I thought this song, with Spector-esque production (check those drums!), was a great example of some of the directions and diversity that retro soul is now inclusive of. (Notably, Russell is often lauded as one of those "White-singers-who-sound-Black," a some what dubiously framed honor but it's meant as a compliment).

Breakestra deserves a mention on the list for a few reasons, not the least of which is that their "Getcho Soul Together" 45 from 199* was one of the few West Coast offerings in the retro soul tradition and they've long helped anchor the Los Angeles side of this community. I also thought it'd be good here to give the Quantic Soul Orchestra a chance to show their thing since they're definitely part of this movement too and they give Breakestra's "Hiding" a catchy, snappy touch.

Lastly, we end on my favorite retro soul album thus far - Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators' Keep Reachin' Up. I've written about this album in the past and don't want to restate too much again but what I will say is that this song, in particular, illuminates how broad and beautifully these newer bands are able to execute a sound that obviously nods to vintage styles but doesn't sound like a complete carbon copy either. Mostly, it's just phenomenal sounding soul and that's good enough.

There are, of course, many other groups/artists that could have been mentioned here. If you like what you hear above, I suggest investing in many of those artists' catalogs deeper or you can also check out anthologies like Up From the Vaults and The Majestic Collection.

As for the bonus tracks, the Nellie McKay isn't retro soul (retro cabaret perhaps) but her ability to work with a throwback style and more importantly, her irreverent songwriting, made me think of her first when I first listened to Amy Winehouse. The two are hardly twins but there's something about their sensibility which reminds me of one another (especially for those who've listened to Winehouse's first album, Frank).

And I wanted to include one more Sharon Jones/Dap-Kings song, this one from their debut album and it's a very cool cover of Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" The song keeps Janet's lyrics but musically, is quite different, given the song a whole new feel. Pity I didn't remember this earlier - it would have made a fine inclusion on SSV2. Oops.

[1] I made the decision to divshare all these songs, partially because it's such a long post, I didn't want to push the bandwidth too far, partially as an experiment to see how well it would work. I know folks prefer direct MP3 hosting (as do I) but these alternatives are proving tempting to use, especially given how they reduce server load as well as allow for tracking, something I was never able to do before.

To make up for the potential annoyance of not having direct downloads, I made that master mix of all the songs strung together into one. I don't plan to make this a habit unless people prefer that I do master mixes in lieu of separate tracks (in other words, I wouldn't make both available except in extraordinary circumstances like these). My guess is that most would prefer separate tracks but I'll wait and see how feedback is.

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