THOM BELL & OTHERS: The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (Real Gone)

Thursday, 09 February 2017 19:31 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

alt'The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh' was a forgettable 1979 movie that producers saw as the follow up to 'Car Wash'. The plot was risible. A down-at-heel basketball team employ a physic (Mona Mondieu) to improve their performances. The physic's solution is to recruit players with the same star sign ... Pisces, and guess what? Yep, the team win the championship! See what I mean by ludicrous... little wonder that the movie bombed, though, as is often the way with cinematic turkeys, 'The Fish' now enjoys a cult, geeky status.

The movie soundtrack, however, is another matter. The producers, encouraged by the success of the Norman Whitfield-helmed 'Car Wash', decided that they'd employ another hot soul producer to handle the score and in 1979 there was none hotter than Thom Bell. Bell, who'd never worked in movies before, was, we're told, flattered by the invitation but soon after he began work on the project he became disillusioned as he realised that the producers and director were less than co-operative. Working "blind", more or less, Bell came up with some quality music delivered by a plethora of top session players (Bob Babbit, Bobby Eli, Don Renaldo amongst them) and an A-list of vocalists, people like the Spinners, Four Tops and Phyllis Hyman. Sadly as the movie bombed, so too (unjustly) did the soundtrack. The movie company withdrew promotion and the album was quickly deleted. Now reissue specialists, Real Gone resurrect the set, allowing soul collectors to enjoy some quality, classic Philly soul... and I'd suggest that's the best way to approach the album.

Forget the movie (everybody else did!) and consider this set as a superior Philly compilation, 'cos that's exactly what it is. The Spinners' offering '(Do It, Do It) No One Does It Better' is right up there with the veteran group's very best while the Sylvers' 'Mighty, Mighty Pisces' is one of the best songs the Spinners never recorded. On the Four Tops' 'Chance Of A Lifetime', Levi Stubbs is superb as always; ditto Phyllis Hyman on 'Magic Mona'. Sometime Delfonic William Hart stars on 'Follow Every Dream' (you'd be forgiven for thinking this a long lost Delfonics' outtake) while for the album's big love ballad, 'Is It Love. Must Be Love' Bell pairs one of his fellow song writers, Frankie Bleu, with country star Loretta Lynn and it's mark of his genius that  Bell makes it work. Indeed, though it's obvious, it's Bell's art that holds the album together. Whether it's on the aforementioned vocals or the quality instrumentals (Philly disco), you'll hear Thom Bell at the top of his game.

Bell's experiences with this film were unhappy ones and he never scored another movie; that, though, doesn't diminish what he actually achieved here!

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 09 February 2017 19:38


JOSÉ JAMES: 'Love In A Time Of Madness' (Blue Note)

Wednesday, 08 February 2017 12:29 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


Evidently, José James likes to shatter people's preconceptions and keep his listeners on their toes. When he emerged in 2008 with his debut LP, 'The Dreamer,' for Gilles Peterson's Brownswood label, the resonant-voiced singer seemed to be intent on forging a career trajectory that followed in the wake of noted vocalese masters like Jon Hendricks and Mark Murphy. But 'Black Magic,' released two years later, found the Minneapolis-born singer taking an unexpected left turn into hip-hop-infused neo-soul. His switch back to straight-ahead jazz on 'For All We Know' - a collection of jazz standards with Belgian pianist Jef Neve - released later the same year, added to the confusion about who the real José James was. James shape-shifted again for 2013's 'No Beginning No End,' which witnessed the singer melding D'Angelo-esque voodoo funk with mellow, soulful vibes and jazzy hip-hop, while 2014's 'While You Were Sleeping' embraced the aesthetics of singer/songwriter rock. But just when you thought that James had found his true niche, perhaps, he returned to jazz with a homage to Billie Holiday, 'Yesterday I had The Blues.'

Some might see James' penchant for flitting between different styles as indicative of someone who's lost their way or doesn't know which direction to go in. Maybe that's true, and certainly, the announcement that this new album is a full-on embrace of contemporary R&B would seem to confirm this. But hang on - isn't an artist allowed to express himself or herself freely? After all, no one ever accused the chameleonic David Bowie of being unsure of who he was musically. The fact is that José James is a risk-taker - a rarity in today's music, where a cookie-cutter mentality rules - and he's been able to express himself in different musical settings without compromising his art. In fact, following his career and watching him explore different musical avenues, has for me, at least, been an exhilarating experience. Never sure of where he's going next, I approach each album with a frisson of anticipation, speculating as to where the latest chapter in his musical journey is going to lead us.

Well, on 'Love In A Time Of Madness,' this former student at New York's New School For Jazz & Contemporary Music has outdone himself. James has never made a bad or indifferent album but this one is without doubt his best and most coherent artistic statement yet. Though he is "reborn" as an R&B man - so says the record company press release -  he brings to the project the eclectic sensibility and distinctive approach to songwriting  that he cultivated on previous albums. What elevates 'Love...' above his previous oeuvre is the album's cohesiveness. It has a unifying theme - love, of course - which binds every song together as he explores the vicissitudes of romance in  a range of settings and moods.

Perhaps conceived as a song cycle rather than a concept album, it ranges from meditative ballads - exemplified by the doubt-ridden 'What Good Is Love,' the jazzy 'To Be With You,' and the anthemic, electronica-tinged 'Breakthrough' - to carefree, get-on-down disco grooves in the shape of 'Ladies Man' and 'Live Your Fantasy.' The latter are a couple of superb dance floor workouts that boast  infectious choruses, punchy horn riffs and irresistible beats. This cat not only knows how to swing but he can also strut his stuff underneath a mirrorball ceiling too. These are enjoyable excursions, certainly, but the main thrust of  the album is a serious exploration of that 'many-splendoured thing' that is so often the inspiration behind pop music - and José James does it exquisitely. What makes this album different is that James explores the redemptive and healing power of love against the troubled background of the times we live in: an era that is starkly defined by racial, economic and social divisions.

With 'Love In A Time Of Madness,' José James has made what could be a career-defining album and, to my ears, it would be madness to ignore it. It's one that certainly has mainstream appeal and the potential to take this talented singer/songwriter's music to a wider audience - given that he gets the right breaks and suitable exposure, of course. Let's hope that he does.  

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 17 February 2017 10:24


VARIOUS: Manhattan Soul 3 (Kent)

Tuesday, 07 February 2017 19:21 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altThis lovely 24 tracker, as the title suggests, is Ace/Kent's third dip into the vaults of some of New York's best indie soul labels, notably Wand, Scepter and Musicor. Proper soul fans will need no explanation about the importance of those labels and the same fans will relish having easy access to some great tunes from legendary soul artists like Big Maybelle, Van McCoy, Brenton Wood, Tommy Hunt, the Shirelles, the Platters and one of my all time favourite harmony groups, the undervalued Esquires. Their contribution is their 1968 Bunky outing 'How Could It Be'. If you know the group, you'll know that their harmonies were always superb, in the manner, I guess, of the Impressions and I've often wondered why they were never bigger.

Other album highlights (for me at least) include the cuts from the aforementioned Tommy Hunt, Big Maybelle and the Platters. Hunt's track is the little known Bacharach tune, 'Lover'. Great tune, even if it does use a very familiar backing track... 'Any Day Now'. Big Maybelle's offering is her version of the 1928 standard 'If I Had You' while the Platters' cut is 'Does It Ring A Bell' from their in-demand 'Sweet Sweet Loving' LP. Lead voice on the track is Sonny Turner who left the group in 1972 and with a lovely completeness the Kent compilers include one of his solo offerings, the smooth and sweet 'Now That You're Gone' which came out on Musicor in '72.

That's just one of the many little twists that Ace/Kent manages to incorporate into their releases. Another here is the inclusion of Melba Moore's debut single... 1966's 'Does Love Believe In Me', a lovely Dionne Warwick style uptown ballad.

As interesting is the fact that though the album is billed "Manhattan" soul, a number of the inclusions come from elsewhere. Stuff like Dan and the Cleancuts' 'Open Up Your Hear' (a Los Angeles recording) and 'Haven't I Been Good To You' from New Orleans' guitarist Johnny Moore were licensed to the New York labels.... but whether the source is NYC, LA or the Big Easy, the soul quality never falters. Hugely recommended for proper soul fans.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 February 2017 11:30


WILKO JOHNSON: 'I Keep It To Myself - The Very Best Of' (Chess/Universal)

Friday, 03 February 2017 14:43 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


The first thing that strikes you about the music on this retrospective is the attitude: it's loud, aggressive and pugnacious, bristling with a fierce, rambunctious energy that is encapsulated in Wilko Johnson's astringent, scything, and sometimes brutal, but always arresting, guitar work. No wonder some commentators see the 69-year-old, cancer-surviving fretboardist  and National Treasure as the missing link between rhythm and blues and punk rock. It was that very same energy that infused the music of legendary Canvey Island R&B band Dr. Feelgood in the mid-'70s. Wilko, of course, was a founder member of that illustrious and highly influential quartet, and though he quit the band exactly forty years ago, their repertoire  - which, as their principal songwriter, he helped to create - remains an important component of who and what he is.

Indeed, you will find some sterling revisits of classic Feelgood numbers on this superlative 25-track/2-CD anthology of Wilko's solo years, including such enduring classics as 'Roxette,' 'Sneaking Suspicion,' 'She Does It Right,' 'Back In The Night,' and 'Down By The Waterside.' Wilko brought  a similar attitude to his own work, as evidenced by the pulsating road songs, 'Out In The Traffic,' which is a cranked-up slice of driving rhythm and blues propelled by heavy riffage, and 'Ice On The Motorway.' Aided by long-time confreres, bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe, Wilko serves up a piquant platter of raw, visceral and earthy rhythm and blues. 'The Hook' - complete with blues-drenched harmonica wails - is another standout, along with 'Barbed Wire Blues' - delivered with deadpan sardonic wit - and a frenetic, adrenalin-pumping retooling of Dr. Feelgood's 'Paradise.'

It's not all full-throttle R&B, though, as the more reflective 'The Beautiful Madrilena,' - which is infused with an Hispanic tinge - 'Living In The Heart Of Love,' and poignant, almost pastoral, 'Turned 21,' illustrate. But searing, turbo-charged rhythm and blues is Wilko Johnson's calling card and on that score, this stupendous collection doesn't disappoint. Turn the volume up all the way to eleven.

(CW) 4/5

Past Wilko Johnson reviews: 

Last Updated on Saturday, 04 February 2017 09:07


VARIOUS ARTISTS: 'Soul Man' (Universal Music On Demand)

Friday, 03 February 2017 11:39 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


alt'Familiarity breeds contempt,' goes the old adage, and as unlikely as it may seem, that expression holds true for some of soul music's most iconic and enduring tunes - indeed, some of the genre's best loved recordings have received so much exposure over the years via constant radio play and frequent appearances on TV adverts and movie soundtracks that some people (even bona fide soul fans) have grown indifferent to their charms. We live, of course, in an era where music is omnipresent, piping in the background at supermarkets, in shopping malls, and functioning like aural wallpaper. It's no wonder that some of us have become jaded, even when it comes to listening to some of the greatest records ever made. We've just been bombarded and saturated by music to the point that we've become numb to its charms and even find it hard to respond emotionally to it.

With that in mind, when I perused the track listing to this 80-track/4-CD collection, I thought to myself, "here we go again, the same old stuff being trotted out." As a long-time music writer and reviewer, I've encountered TV-promoted compilations like 'Soul Man' over the years to the point of ad nauseam. Usually, they're cobbled together by marketing people rather than serious aficionados of the genre and sadly, 'Soul Man' is no different in this respect; the anomalous inclusion of jazz man Louis Armstrong's 'What A Wonderful World' on CD 1 of this compilation is a glaring faux-pas that no knowledgeable soul fan would make. But while that unforgivable error confirmed my fears about this collection, in truth it's a minor blemish that shouldn't taint our appreciation of this compendium, which is not aimed at the soul aficionado but rather, the wider public. If you look at it as an entry-level guide to the masculine side of soul music, it does a pretty sound job - many of the significant, major figures are featured (James Brown, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes et al) along with some less familiar names to the general public (Len Barry, Rare Earth, and Windjammer).There are tracks from different decades  too - the '60s,'70s,and  '80s are all represented - so you get a wide spectrum of music.

As a soul music primer it does a decent enough job and though I've heard many of the tunes myriad times before, I tried to listen with fresh ears and rediscover what drew me to soul music in the first place. It worked. Songs like Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine,' James Brown's 'I Got You (I Feel Good),' Otis Redding's ('Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay,' and Percy Sledge's 'When A Man Loves A Woman' and Curtis Mayfield's 'Move On Up' - so familiar to me that I usually switched off when I heard them - were transformed and sounded fresh and new again, their soulful expression resonating in a deeper part of my being. As well as solo male performers, plenty of groups are represented, ranging from the doo-wop influenced Drifters, Chi-Lites and O'Jays to funky outfits like Parliament, The Bar-Kays, Ohio Players, Kool & The Gang, The Gap Band, and Cameo. Jazz-infused soul comes from the excellent Gil Scott-Heron (his fabulous 'Lady Day & John Coltrane'), George Benson and The Blackbyrds. And there are plenty of '80s cuts as well, including killer tracks from Luther Vandross, Rick James, Cameo, Lionel Richie and Will Downing. It's all good stuff.

So, whether you're an inveterate soul music fanatic or just a casual browser passing through,  there's plenty to enjoy and appreciate here - and perhaps, like me, the collection will make you re-evaluate over-familiar old classics that you may have taken for granted. 

(CW) 3/5 


Last Updated on Friday, 03 February 2017 19:41


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