HAROLD MELVIN and the BLUE NOTES Be For Real (SoulMusic Records)

Monday, 26 August 2019 18:50 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altHarold Melvin and the Blue Notes were in the vanguard of the upward advance of the mighty Philadelphia International Empire. Fans, though, will know that the group has a history that begins long before Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's ascendancy. Indeed they were formed way, way back in 1954 as the Charlemagnes then, after becoming the Blue Notes, they made their recording debut in 1956. Internal group disputes led to member Harold Melvin breaking away with his own "Blue Notes" as rivals to the remaining "Original Blue Notes". It was the Melvin-led combo though that enjoyed more success, recording for labels like Landa and TK whilst making a reasonably lucrative living on the cabaret circuit. Indeed it was at a supper club show that Gamble and Huff saw the band and decided to sign them to their fledgling PIR label. Soul myth has it that the duo was mightily impressed by the group's drummer/singer, Teddy Pendergrass. Philly histories tell us that Kenny and Leon always wanted to sign the Dells to work with the mighty Marvin Junior and in Pendergrass they thought they'd found the next best thing!

Whatever... Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes signed to PIR in 1972 and there and then started a remarkable run of success... four wonderful albums and a slew of hit singles and now that entire PIR repertoire has been brought together in this wonderful 3 CD box set from SoulMusic Records.

The collection begins with one of the greatest soul group albums of all time... the seven tracker that was originally issued as 'Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' before being hastily renamed 'I Miss You' after the epic 8 minute plus opening track which became a smash hit. If you doubt the aforementioned Dells envy – take a real good listen to 'I Miss You' and though the LP's other big tune, 'If You Don't Know Me By Now', is often cited as the group's anthem, it's 'I Miss You' that remains the Blue Note's masterpiece. Never mind remembering where you were when Kennedy was assassinated (yes, I'm that old!) every proper soul fan can remember exactly where they where when they first heard 'I Miss You' – and it will still make those neck hairs stand on end!

After that, I suppose, everything else was bound to be something of an anti-climax but Harold and the boys (soon billed as "featuring Teddy Pendergrass") recorded plenty more classics – 'The Love I Lost', 'Satisfaction Guaranteed', 'Where Are All My Friends', 'Bad Luck' , 'Wake Up Everybody' and many more. They're all here – alongside plenty of magnificent LP tracks (listen up to  'Be For Real' – almost as good as 'I Miss You') and as bonuses, the third CD in this pack offers 6 "rarities" – their version of 'Everybody's Talkin' (from the 'Clean Up The Ghetto' album), two Tom Moulton mixes and three live recordings. One of them, I need to mention, is 'I Miss You' – this time around 11 epic minutes!

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Monday, 26 August 2019 20:02


1968 feat RASHEED ALI: The Other Side Of Town (Digital Rain Factory)

Thursday, 22 August 2019 10:53 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altRasheed Ali (and his 1968 "band" – more of that later) is a New York based musician who, over the last few years, has issued a provocative and challenging trilogy of long players – all carrying powerful messages in the music. First we had '1968 Soul Power' - an exploration of issues that affected Afro-Americans in the late 60s/early 70s; then there was '1968: Black Power' on which the themes were more personal – roots, heritage and expanding your visions. The third instalment was '1968: Love Power'. Here the messages were even more personal with many of the songs highlighting the role of the women in Rasheed's life – especially his mother. The three albums were delivered with the style and sounds of late 60 soul – think James Brown, Norman Whitfield, Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone et al.

Now the whole "concept" is back with 'The Other Side Of Town' – a 15 tracker that you'd think makes the "trilogy" a "quartet". Not so! Rasheed tells us that 'The Other Side Of Town' is the first episode in a new trilogy which he calls his "LSD" trilogy – "Love. soul and devotion" and sonically it's a little different to the three ground breakers. Rasheed's musical time machine still takes us back to the late 60s but the overall music template is looser, more percussive (lashings of Afrobeat) and even more funky. For instance try the rhythmic 'I'm Not Your Whipping Boy' – hints of War's 'Low Rider'; or the equally percussive 'I'm Comin' (interesting use of marimbas?) with late career Marvin Gaye style layered harmonies and "distant" Norman Whitfield horns.

The messages in all this music, though, are just as potent and challenging. Take for instance, 'A Badge And A Gun'. This sombre cut (previously available as a single) is Rasheed's response to the violence against Afro–Americans citizens by trigger-happy US police. The jazzy 'Stop The World' looks at the Earth from space and asks what have we created. Other cuts proffer subtle digs at Donald Trump but Mr A is clear that the man with the comb over isn't the only problem. Maybe we're all part of it. The downbeat 'Be A Man' asks us all to stand up and take a stand echoing Martin Luther King Junior's famous , "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends". Dip in anywhere, though, and be challenged and maybe disturbed too.

1968 feat Rasheed Ali will be back soon with volume 2 of this new trilogy – a love album, we're told. And as for the band "1968 feat Rasheed Ali", well Rasheed plays all the instruments himself – the only "extra" is his nephew Emile Martinez on trumpet. He is, however, keen on the "band" concept... complicated, yes and every bit as complex and intriguing as his music.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 August 2019 11:05


IKEBE SHAKEDOWN: Kings Left Behind (Colemine)

Friday, 16 August 2019 16:11 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altIkebe Shakedown is a seven piece instrumental combo that came together in Brooklyn in 2008. They named themselves after a classic Nigerian long player and describe their music as "afro-soul". They debuted in 2009 with the EP 'Hard Steppin' which was followed by a full eponymous LP. Two more albums offering their signature brass-filled sound got Ikebe Shakedown work with people like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. And therein is another clue to the outfit's sound – they peddle that now very fashionable, tough and rough, retro brassy soul – though in their case they throw in Afro flavours, a touch of the cinematic and an undercurrent of psychedelic.

Hear all those signature flavours on this set's opener... 'Not Another Drop'. Funky, Afro percussion, psychedelic guitar and riffing brass – it's all in the mix. The album's title track offers more of the same – to recommend it I'd say it reminds me more of the classic Stax sound than that of Daptone. More big, old school flavours on 'Unqualified' - a big, big tune with a real catchy brass figure, authentic Hammond and stomping Northern soul beats. It also boasts that rough, unpolished 60s indie soul sound. I'll wager if you played this one out at a Northern soul event and claimed it as a long lost backing track from a label like Mirwood, Loma or Shrine none of the brothers (or sisters) would bat an eyelid... they'd just get on with the back flips!

Throw in a couple of more melancholic cuts – 'The Witness' for instance – and you have an intriguing, imaginative collection. In truth, 'Kings Left Behind' is never going to set the soul world alight – but if you like your sounds rough hewn and authentic, you could do worse than investigate!

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Friday, 16 August 2019 16:18


THE EMOTIONS: 'Don't Ask My Neigbors: The Columbia/Arc Recordings 1976-1981' (SoulMusic Records)

Wednesday, 14 August 2019 13:14 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                             altAlthough it wasn't until the late '70s when The Emotions hit the radar of mainstream record buyers - following their No. 1 US hit, 'Best Of My Love,' in 1977 and their memorable appearance on Earth, Wind & Fire's big disco anthem, 'Boogie Wonderland' a year later - the three Hutchinson sisters were already an established and successful R&B act with a string of hits to their name. Originally from Chicago,  they started out as a family gospel trio called the Heavenly Sunbeams before becoming The Emotions in the late 60s. After a couple of 45s for local Windy City indie labels, they signed to Stax Records' Volt subsidiary in 1969 and scored a hit with the sensational single, 'So I Can Love You,' a big US R&B and pop hit. But it was later at Columbia (and its subsidiary, Arc)  between 1976 and 1981 where the soulful trio really hit their stride and it is that fertile period which is documented by this fabulous new  3-CD anthology.  

It contains all five of the siblings Columbia LPs - 'Flowers,' 'Rejoice,'  'Sunbeam,' 'Come Into Our World,' and 'New Affair' - plus a raft of bonus cuts, which include 12-inch mixes, non-album B-sides and single edits. With insightful liner notes by compiler, David Nathan, it all adds up to an essential package that no self-respecting soul music fan should be without.

'Flowers,' released in 1976, was the sisters debut LP for Columbia. Helmed by fellow Chicagoan, Earth Wind & Fire's Maurice White, it certainly upped the production ante compared with the group's earlier Stax/Volt albums. It's lead off cut, 'I Don't Want To Lose Your Love,' with its infectious refrain and punchy horn lines, was a Top 20 US R&B hit. Other great cuts from that set are 'Flowers,' 'No Pans For Tomorrow'  and a short a cappella vocal piece, 'We Go Through Changes,' which highlights the  beauty of the Hutchinson sisters' ethereal harmonies. 

It was '77's 'Rejoice,' though, which is widely regarded as The Emotions' magnum opus. It's a glorious amalgam of soul, funk, and gospel flavours and although the catchy, dance-oriented 'Best Of My Love' gave the group their first and only No. 1 single, there were even better songs to be found on the album: such as the mesmerising Skip Scarborough-penned ballad 'Don't Ask My Neighbor,' the super-sanctified groove ballad 'Blessed,' and the album's exultant title cut.

For this writer, '78's 'Sunbeam' didn't quite reach the same high level as their first two Columbia albums despite having Maurice White again behind the mixing board. It did have some good moments, though, like the upbeat 'Smile' and the string-swept Skip Scarborough ballad, 'Walking The Line,' stylistically a close relation of the previous year's 'Don't Ask My Neigbor.'

1979's 'Come Into Our World,'  their debut for Maurice White's Arc imprint, possessed more of a palpable disco influence, reflected by the driving, lushly-orchestrated title song complete with popping syn drums and the carefree 'I Should Be Dancing.' It contained some strong ballads, too, like the David Foster-co-written 'On & On' and the funky groove, 'Layed Back.'

The Emotions' final Columbia/Arc album, 'New Affair,' from 1981, was the least successful of their projects under the aegis of Maurice White but don't let that put you off. It's a little gem of an album featuring a blend of strong dance material and ballads. Pick of the bunch are the ace dancer, 'Love Lies,' and  the silky, jazz-infused funk of 'There'll Never Be Another Moment,' the latter the only track produced by White (the rest were helmed by Billy Meyers plus Wayne Vaughn together with his wife, Emotion's member, Wanda Vaughn).

'New Affair' appears on CD 3 of the compilation, which is filled out with bonus material: ranging from a 12-inch mix of 'Boogie Wonderland,' four single edits, and best of all, two single flipsides ('My Baby Dance' and 'Changes'), which, as far as I'm aware, have never been issued on CD before. This compilation, then, offers us a definitive portrait of The Emotions at their peak and as such, it's not to be missed.  ('Don't Ask My Neighbors' is released on August 23rd).

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 16 August 2019 11:10


COOL MILLION: Stronger (Cool Million Records 2019)

Monday, 12 August 2019 19:47 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altWell, we've been watiting for this album for quite some time. It seems a long time ago when the Cool Million team (Rob Hardt and Frank Ryle) announced they were working on a very special collection to celebrate their tenth year in the crazy world of modern soul. Finally, it's here and, yes, the waiting has been worth it. 'Stronger', the boys' sixth long player, is stuffed with classy, modern soul grooves – all harking back to the great 'Weekender' days of the 80s but all offered with a distinct 21st century twist.

The arrival of this album was signalled by the single 'Stronger' which featured a typically powerhouse vocal from James D Train Williams... and that's the track that kicks off the album. A mighty fine opening gambit and, yes, groan at the cliche, things then get even stronger!

The long player offers plenty more big, danceable modern soul grooves – stuff like 'Skin Tight' (featuring the Boogie Back team), 'Keep On' and the fine clipped beater 'Share The Light' are all drenched in the classic "Cool Million dance sound". But Rob and Frank can do much more than provide fodder for the feet. 'Stronger' has some great slow jams – the semi-whispered 'No Matter What', the slinky 'Slow Burn Love' (D Train proves he can "do slowies" too) and – best of the bunch – 'Come Back Home'. This one derives its inpsiration from people like Teddy P and Barry White – and a great lyric... our protagonist gets out the massage oil, turns down the lights and lights the candles in the hope that the love of his life will "come back home". The cut features some ultra slinky sax work from Alexander Hartmann and a sensual vocal from David A. Tobin.

And that's why this album is so damn good. Cool Million's standing is such that they can call on the top session players and the very best vocalists to help them flesh out their ideas. So, amongst those featured here are guitarist Maic Burkhardt and vocalists Seest, Kevin East, Yolonda Lavender and Matthew Winchester. And let's not forget that Mr Hardt is no mean keyboardist while Frank has a great ear for that special sound.

So, ten years down the line; five LPs; sixty singles – and Cool Million are still getting stronger. Here's to the next ten years!

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Monday, 12 August 2019 20:02


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