ASHFORD & SIMPSON: 'Love Will Fix It - The Warner Bros. Records Anthology 1973-1981' (Groove Line Records)

Thursday, 06 September 2018 15:29 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                            altHusband and wife duo, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, scored their biggest career hit for Capitol Records in 1984 with the matrimonial anthem, 'Solid,' which topped the US R&B charts and was hugely successful around the world (in the UK, it reached #3). While the success of that particular record took the duo's music to a much wider audience, putting them on the radar of casual pop fans all over the globe, long-time admirers of Ashford & Simpson's work, while applauding the fact that 'Solid's' success  made them a household name, tend (like me) to prefer the pair's recordings from their earlier tenure at Warner Bros.

After finding success at Motown in the late '60s and early '70s as songwriters and producers (for Marvin Gaye & Tami Terrell and Diana Ross), they joined the then Burbank-based Warner Bros. label in 1973 where they released eight LPs before leaving in 1981 for Capitol.  The work they produced during those eight years was remarkable, especially in the late '70s when they brought a sophisticated musical sensibility to the disco zeitgeist.

'Love Will Fix It' is a lovingly-curated 3-CD set that comes exactly 10 years after Rhino's 'The Warner Bros Years - Hits, Remixes & Rarities.' But while that particular collection focused on the duo's floor fillers - and was peppered with 12-inch mixes throughout - this new compendium features singles and key album cuts on the first two CDs and then reserves the dance mixes for the third and final disc. Even though the format's similar, it is, then, quite different in concept, which is reason enough to invest in this new compilation even if you possess the earlier Rhino one.

The music's so consistently good throughout that it feels almost churlish to single out individual tracks for praise. One thing that's clear, though, is that Nick and Val took their love of big, rousing, anthemic, choruses - a quality that distinguished their Motown work - with them to Warner Bros. Their debut single for Warner, the sublime duet, '(I'd Know You Anywhere),' which opens the first disc, probably would have been a big hit if it had come out on Motown, but just scraped into the US R&B Top 40 (Warner Bros wasn't renowned as a label for successfully promoting R&B acts).  The duo were also masters of dramatic tension. They knew (more from experience than instinct) how to write songs that built slowly and then exploded when the chorus hit. And their voices intertwined so perfectly, too. They didn't try to overpower each other. Nick's strong, masculine, virile delivery - he's one of the most criminally underrated male soul vocalists ever - was ably complemented by Val's sassy, gospel-infused delivery. Vocally, they were the perfect couple, and as songwriters, they were experts on dissecting love and relationships. What's also striking about their music - just listen to the sermon-like message of 'Have You Ever Tried It' - is the influence of the African American church in their music. It's an omnipresent feature in their songs and even when they take us down to the disco on the mirrorball-themed third CD in the set - comprising disco mixes of classic floor fillers such as 'Found A Cure,' 'Stay Free,' 'It Seems To Hang On,' and  the brilliant instrumental, 'Bourgie Bourgie' - they never lose the sanctified fervour that inhabits all of their songs.  

Beautifully packaged and accompanied by a detailed liner note booklet including reminiscences both from Val Simpson and A&S's collaborators and peers, 'Love Will Fix It' also premieres an ace new Mike Maurro bonus remix of the instrumental vamp from 'Tried, Tested & True.' This, then, is unequivocally the best Ashford & Simpson retrospective that money can buy right now.  

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Saturday, 08 September 2018 12:43


JONATHAN BUTLER: Close To You (Artistry)

Wednesday, 05 September 2018 20:03 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altLike the Christmas album, most long serving recording artists feel the need sometime or other to have a bash at the Bacharach/David songbook. It might well be a well chosen cover or two on a new long player or it might be a whole album of the duo's best songs... and it's that latter path that South African singer/guitarist Jonathan Butler has chosen to tread for his latest project. 'Close To You' (bit of clue there) is JB's homage to one of the most influential writing teams of the modern era... well almost. You see the 11 tracker has an odd cuckoo in the nest... a new tune, penned by Butler, called 'Cape Town' – a bright and breezy vocal tribute to the South African city.

There seems to be no explanation as to why it sits amidst ten Bacharach/David songs... but there you have it... odd. And what of the Bacharach/David covers? Well if you're covering old chestnuts there seems to be two choices.... a faithful rendition based on well-known versions or a completely new treatment. By and large Butler opts for the second choice. In truth he doesn't go the whole hog as, say Luther Vandross did. Luther was beloved for his deconstructing the songs and building radical new versions; Jonathan treats his choices with a  little more respect but he does offer fresh arrangements bringing a new perspective to the very familiar.... sometimes it works... sometimes it doesn't.

The set gets off to a great start with a samba styled look at 'Do You Know The Way To San Jose'. The beats shuffle beautifully allowing Butler's guitar to deliver the lovely melody with sparking panache. The cover of 'I Say Am Little Prayer' works well too and I'm always impressed by 'Alfie'. It's such a great song (Bacharach's own favourite... do yourself a favour... dig out his heart-rending version).

Less impressive is the up-tempo cover of 'I'll Never Fall In Love Again' ; it quite loses the ironic pathos of what, I think, was originally intended. Two other classics – 'Close To You' and 'Walk On By' become meanders rather than concise paeans to love and loss respectively. The other included songs are 'This Guy's In Love With You', 'The Look Of Love' and 'What The World Needs Now'.. all a bit predictable. Maybe if Mr Butler had chosen some less well-known Burt B songs, we might have had a more exciting/intriguing collection.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 September 2018 20:16


SAM RUCKER: Redemption (Favor)

Friday, 31 August 2018 18:25 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altThe 11 track 'Redemption' is smooth jazz sax man Sam Rucker's third long player as leader and we're told that the recording and release of the album has provided a cathartic release for the Virginian musician. You see, when he released his last album 'Tell You Something' he was going through a divorce. The pain and the heart searching that go with marital difficulties often leave deep scars, but by opting to record what is essentially a feel-good, gospel-based album , Sam believes he has broken through to better times; indeed he's newly married and looking forward rather than over his shoulder.

That said, for all its inherent optimism, 'Redemption' is tinged with an element of sadness. Tragically two of the set's featured guitarists, Justin Taylor and John Calisto died shortly after recording their contributions to the collection – the gentle 'Overcomer' , the seven minute ramble that is 'True Love', 'Forever Forgiven' and 'I Am With You' – those last two being balladic moments with the former featuring a short vocal from Wanda Jay who sweetly caresses the gospel message of the lyric. 'Down On The Inside' and 'True Love' (the set's lead single) are focus vocals too while 'Please Child' has J Regina Blackwell's vocal duelling with Rucker's tenor.

Throughout, though, the star of the show is Rucker's old school sax sound – raw and real, it's clearly the source of his redemption.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Friday, 31 August 2018 18:34


BRIAN BROMBERG; Thicker Than Water (Artistry)

Monday, 27 August 2018 12:25 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altBrian Bromberg is an American jazz bassist with an enviable CV. He started off way back working with Stan Getz, and has since gone on to play alongside some of the biggest names in jazz and soul. As a leader, Brian's recorded over 20 albums and 'Thicker Than Water' is the latest in his catalogue. His status is such that when he goes into the studio he can call on plenty of big names to help him craft his musical ideas. So, on this 13 tracker you can enjoy the artistry of people like Randy Brecker, Marion Meadows, Najee, Everette Harp, Lenny Castro, Paul Jackson Jr, Brandon Fields and Gary Meek. In a poignant moment, there's also a cameo from George Duke. The keyboard maestro features on 'Uh, Uh' – a mid-tempo jazzy/soul groove that also has input from Randy Brecker, Bromberg believes that the track is one of the last performances from Duke. His sparkling electric piano solo is as you'd expect.

Amongst the other album highlights is the opener, 'Is That The Best You Can Do' – a funky, deep rumble that recalls those classic collaborations between Marcus Miller and David Sanborn. Everette Harp is the featured soloist on this one. Ballad highlight is the gentle 'Your Eyes' (sweet keys from Brian Zink) while Brian pays homage to Japan on 'Land Of Rising Sun'; Bromberg (like many smooth jazzers, is "big in Japan"). The track is led by Hiroshima's June Kuramoto on koto and also features bamboo flute fills courtesy of Mark Hollingsworth. 'Minneapolis 1987' is another tribute piece; this time to people like Prince and Jam and Lewis.

This is, though, a Brian Bromberg album and he allows himself plenty of scope to highlight his own musicianship via number of solos – the intros to 'Coup De Ville' and 'It's Called Life' and the closing 'A Familia' – a 2 minute plus upright bass master class.

For those who like to know these things, 'Thicker Than Water's' 13 tracks are all originals and there are no vocals. It's out now on Artistry.

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Monday, 27 August 2018 12:44


PAUL CARRACK: These Days (Carrack)

Friday, 24 August 2018 18:45 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

alt'These Days' is Paul Carrack's 17th solo album and though the 11 tracker is unmistakably the "sound of Carrack" that sound is a wee bit different. The first difference that long-time followers will notice is that there are no covers here. Unlike Paul's more recent album outings which featured fab versions of stuff like 'When My Little Girl Is Smiling', 'I'm Losing You' (the Brenda Lee song, not the Temptations), 'If Loving You Is Wrong', 'You Don't Know Me' and 'Share Your Love With Me', everything on 'These Days' is original. Secondly, for five of those originals, Paul has collaborated with Chris Difford. The pair, of course, have history. They worked together in prime time Squeeze an on a number of the tunes here there's a definite Squeezy flavour – most notably on 'Life In A Bubble' – a reflective piece that wonders why so many of us become preoccupied with our trivial "first world" problems while the "second" and "third" worlds face monumental issues and problems.

'In The Cold Light Of Day' is a little different too. Here the soundscape is country-rock... more Nashville than the cities (Chicago, Detroit?) that spawned Paul's early influences. On the LP title track the musical mood has a gentle Caribbean flavour... not quite reggae, but going in that direction. The musical message here, by the way, is to appreciate what we have while we have it. Mr C is becoming more and more philosophical in old age! (Whisper it – he's 67!)

'You Make Me Feel Good' takes us back to what Paul's best-known for - "blue-eyed" soul – the southern variety on this one. Brash and bold, the track features top flight brass, marshalled by no less a horn man that Pee Wee Ellis. Ellis' brass arrangements are a highlight throughout the album. They grace the opening, 'Amazing'... a classic slice of Paul Carrack; melodic, harmonic, polished, thoughtful, proper grown-up music. The gentler 'Dig Deep', 'The Best I Could' (Celtic echoes on this?) and 'Where Does The Time Go' merit the same adjectives as too does the swinging, Steely Dan-flavoured 'Perfect Storm'. Maybe it's a coincidence but the drummer on this one (and throughout the album) is Becker/Fagen alumnus, Steve Gadd.

So yes, 'These Days' has plenty of what you'd expect from a Paul Carrack album yet also offers some subtle surprises. As ever, what holds it all together is the Carrack voice (little wonder he's dubbed "the man with the Golden Voice") and the obvious joy and love with which Paul works. Share that joy and love when he takes to the road again in the new year. His annual tour begins on 18th January in Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall, and ends on 24th March at The Lowry in Salford. 'These Days' is released on 7th September on Carrack-UK.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 24 August 2018 18:52


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