Reviews

ASHFORD & SIMPSON: 'The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities' (Label: Rhino)

Wednesday, 27 February 2008 12:54 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

ASHFORD & SIMPSON: 'The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities'

Mention Ashford & Simpson to any British person over 30 and the odds are that they'll recall the duo's big romantic anthem from 1984, 'Solid,' which peaked at number 3 in the UK singles chart. Ironically, though, I truly believe that the Big Apple-based songwriting team were already past their best by then, even though they were enjoying the biggest commercial success of their careers. Indeed, as this excellent new 2-CD retrospective illustrates, the twosome's '80s work for Capitol really does pale in comparison with their earlier recordings for Warner Bros. Husband and wife team, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, joined the Loony Tune label in 1973 after a fertile stint penning and producing hits at Motown for the likes of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross. They experienced a few modest Stateside R&B chart entries from '73 until '77, when a change of direction - they decided to swim along with the disco tidal wave - got them attention and eventually resulted in the Top 20 smash, 'Send It.' A year later, they almost topped the R&B lists when their hypnotic dance floor groove, 'It Seems To Hang On,' stalled at Number 2 and stayed there for 5 weeks (interestingly, the song's groove and chord sequence became the template for many smooth soul records in the following decade) . Both those tunes can be found on this commendable new compilation, which includes several of the duo's hard-to-find 12-inch disco mixes - including 'One More Try,' 'Tried, Tested & Found,' 'Found A Cure,' and 'Love Don't Make It Right' - and a bonus CD of remixes. The emphasis here is on the duo's soul-infused dance floor burners and so some of their great ballads - 'Crazy,' 'Destiny' and 'Let Love Use Me' - are omitted. Even so, this is a top-notch set packed with great music, like 'Found A Cure' and their brilliant original version of 'Top Of The Stairs.' You'll also find the duo's rendition of the song 'Bourgie Bourgie,' which they originally cut as an instrumental (it was later given words and a vocal melody and taken into the charts by Gladys Knight & The Pips). To my mind, the remixes on CD2 are largely redundant - sure, there's nothing too radical that will upset the purists and the likes of Tom Moulton, Joey Negro and Paul Simpson stay true to the spirit of the originals, but overall it seems a pointless exercise. Nevertheless, this is a pleasing compilation packed with beats and grooves that would make even the most arthritic of lower limbs twitch in anticipation of boogieing down on the dance floor.
(CW) 4/5

 

VARIOUS: The Bert Berns Story (Label: Ace)

Tuesday, 26 February 2008 17:17 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

VARIOUS: The Bert Berns Story

Though he doesn't always get the credit, Bert Berns was one of the founding fathers of modern popular music. His achievements put him up there with the likes of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Phil Spector, the Chess Brothers and the team at Atlantic. Maybe it was his premature death in 1967 that ultimately denied him the status he deserved, but now with this wonderful Ace 26 tracker of music he worked on, music fans and critics alike can at least start to reassess Berns' contribution to the 20th century's most enduring art from. Born Bertrand Russell Berns in 1929, the native New Yorker went on to write and produce a slew of hits that became 60s pop mainstays. More, he recorded himself as Russell Byrd, worked in swingin' sixties UK, owned his own label and was so influential that the savvy Atlantic bosses bought him in to work for them. That huge variety is reflected in this album which covers his career from 1960-1964. The two main focuses are Solomon Burke's 'Cry To Me' and the Isley Brothers' 'Twist And Shout'. Both those recordings would guarantee Berns iconic status but add to that cuts like the Vibrations' 'My Girl Sloopy', Little Esther Philips' 'Mo Jo Hannah', the Drifters' 'One Way Love', the Jarmels' 'Little Bit Of Soap' and Ben E King's 'Gypsy' and you'll start to understand Berns' importance. Those cuts of course, are all great New York 60s soul sounds but there's great pop here too from people like Gene Pitney, Mel Torme and little old Lulu - whom Berns recorded on his song 'Here Comes The Night'. You'll know that Van Morrison's Them also cut the tune - leading to Morrison signing to Berns' label and the start of his solo career. But that's another story and one we're promised will unfold in Volume 2 later in the year.
(BB) 4 out 5

 

AL WILSON: Searching For The Dolphins (Label: Kent)

Tuesday, 26 February 2008 12:20 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

AL WILSON: Searching For The Dolphins

Classy soul singer, Al Wilson is best known over here for two recordings - 'Show And Tell' and 'The Snake'. The former, a real smooth soul favourite, was cut in the second phase of Wilson's career while Northern fave and Lambrini ad soundtrack, 'The Snake' dates from the time the man was pacted to Johnny Rivers' Soul City records. That 100 mph version of the Oscar Brown allegory comes from Al's only album for that label, 'Searching For The Dolphins' which, at last, has won reissue via Ace's Kent imprint. Here you get all the album's original eleven tracks and - as is the way with Ace - a slew of bonuses. Recorded in 1968 the 'Dolphins' album is a perfect artefact of late sixties smooth soul and like much contemporary material is made up of original songs and some thoughtful covers - like 'The Snake'. Other re-treads include a version of the 4 Tops' 'Shake Me Wake Me' and Jerry Butler's 'I Stand Accused' and Wilson acquits himself well on both. There's also takes on two Jimmy Webb tunes - 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' and 'Do What You Gotta Do' and though we know that Webb was a Soul City staffer, there's still a debate as to who recorded the definitive originals. It is all academic, of course, but Wilson offers strong versions and they rival the LP's title cut as the pick of the bunch. The Ace/Kent sourced bonus cuts aren't quiet as strong. They include Soul City B-sides and a quartet of songs dating from Wilson's time with Carousel but they will satisfy completists, who'll also now demand, I'm sure, a decent, re-mastered reissue of the Rocky Road album 'Show And Tell'.
(BB) 3 out of 5

 

LORI JENAIRE: Fruition (Label: NBE Records)

Tuesday, 26 February 2008 05:09 Bill Buckley E-mailPrintPDF

LORI JENAIRE: Fruition

Committed and knowing indie soul fans will know all about the talents of Lori Jenaire. Thanks to the sterling (and often unsung) work of UK soul promoters her work has been filtering in over here for a year or so and despite the odd dance aberration, her work has been consistently good. Now with this new 12 tracker - aptly called 'Fruition' - Lori's music moves to another level. Working with Gladys Knight's musical director Scott Cannady, Lori has crafted a wonderful indie soul set that demands investigation from anyone who digs divas like the aforementioned Gladys Knight or Anita Baker - to whose primetime work this album most resembles. The set starts promisingly with a cover of 'California Dreamin''. I never understood why the soul fraternity like this tune but Lori does it her way. Different to Bobby Womack's take, she even manages to work a snatch of Aretha's 'Daydreamin'' in. Track two, 'Stay Strong' doesn't quite take off, but maybe it's because I have a thing about those cod Caribbean interjections made popular by the Fugees. However, all's quickly forgiven with the third track - 'Matter Of Time'. It's a beaut and possibly the best indie soul tune of the year so far. The song boasts a lovely melody, there's the sweetest of choruses, the beats are elegantly paced and Lori's vocal is truly 'felt.' Add to that some extra soulful sax from Rodney Taylor and you have a perfect modern soul confection. Almost as good are 'Dontcha Wanna Know' and 'Pieces.' The former has some lovely, restrained beats which are perfect for the modern room while the latter is a steady groove underpinning a wonderful vocal on an ultra-catchy melody. If ballads are your thing then try the drama of 'Pictures'. It equals the Dianne Warren-penned 'Lately I' as the LP's best slowie - check out the piano on that one. Elsewhere, 'Unexpected Storm' has a touch of Latin about it while 'Better Now' has a different feel altogether. That one's produced by guitar man John Dixon and adds variety to a great indie soul set which I can't commend too highly.
(BB) 4 out of 5

 

DUFFY: 'Rockferry' (Label: A&M)

Monday, 25 February 2008 11:49 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

DUFFY: 'Rockferry'

By now just about everyone in the UK will be familiar with Amy Ann Duffy. The 23-year-old blond singer from Nefyn, North Wales, is currently enjoying pole position in the British singles chart with 'Mercy,' an infectious slice of gospel-infused retro-rhythm and blues that recalls '60s blue-eyed soul divas Dusty Springfield and Lulu. Though there's obviously a lot of PR hype and money helping to propel Duffy into the big time, there's no doubt that her unique voice - a raspy, bittersweet instrument that recalls Bettye LaVette, Candi Staton and even, in places, Bettye Swann - deserves a large, appreciative audience. The big test for Duffy is whether she'll be able to sustain the type of heady success she's currently enjoying. However, on the evidence of this eagerly anticipated debut album - which apparently has been in gestation for three years - the future looks bright. Sympathetically helmed by guitarist Bernard Butler - former member of Suede and one-time musical partner of David McAlmont - 'Rockferry' is a varied yet cohesive set containing ten soulful, well-wrought songs. The atmospheric title track has a palpable '60s feel and its striking instrumental introduction recalls antique Mersey beat groups like Billy J Kramer & the Dakotas. By contrast, 'Warwick Avenue' - complete with an opulent arrangement for string orchestra - is a catchy mid-tempo ballad that has a Motown feel. 'Serious' is even more addictive, largely due to its slinky mid-paced groove and insistent chorus. The gorgeous 'Steppin' Stone' is also noteworthy and features a poignant vocal underpinned by a haunting arrangement that recalls Dionne Warwick's Bacharach-David-helmed 'Walk On By.' Arguably the best showcase for Duffy's vocal prowess is 'Syrup and Honey,' an achingly slow, bluesy cut, which sounds like it was recorded in Memphis or Muscle Shoals in the late '60s/early '70s. 'Hanging On Too Long' is also strong, sounding like something Bettye Swann might have recorded for Atlantic in the early '70s while the plaintive 'Delayed Devotion' has an Al Green/Hi Records feel. Indeed, Duffy's influences are transparent but she's no mere copyist or karaoke singer and has definitely distilled her influences and added something of her own that gives her vocal delivery a unique, distinctive sound. Despite having a running time of just under 40 minutes, this album is not short on quality and proves to be a tantalising debut that leaves the listener craving more.
(CW) 4/5

 

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