VARIOUS: Essential Motown Northern Soul (Universal/Spectrum)

Wednesday, 17 October 2018 12:44 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altThere are any number of Motown compilations out there but most tread the safe and predicable path of "classics" and "greatest hits" sets. From time to time though the label custodians come up with something a little different and therefore a little more exciting... and this new 3 CD, 66 track collection is just that. Here we have a plethora of the venerable old label's best tunes that were espoused and championed by the Northern soul scene... and, yes, that title is right.... "essential" is bob on.

The pack kicks off with a cut that says everything about the connection between Motown and the Northern scene...Frank Wilson's 'Do I Love You'. This ticks all the boxes implicit in the collection's title and yes, at one time (reportedly) 'Do I Love You' was one of the world's rarest records. And yes, the first pressing 45s might be as rare as a Jose Mourinho smile but the tune is now mighty familiar and readily available in all kinds of formats. I remember it was recently used as a main theme in a BBC drama series. But that familiarity doesn't diminish its magic and pizzazz! It's still a masterpiece. And this set boasts plenty more that's just as familiar and magical.... The Velvelettes 'Lonely, Lonely Girl Am I', Edwin Starr's 'I Have Faith In You' and Earl Van Dyke's '6 By 6'amongst them. Other big names and big tunes rub shoulders with Motown second stringers (people like Debbie Dean and Frances Nero) and that only adds to this sets attraction.

Another attraction –for me at least – is that not all the cuts are frantic and frenetic four on the floor beaters. There's plenty of subtly mellower moments and my guess is that as the original Northern crew age (disgracefully or whatever) they'll really enjoy stuff like Marvin's version of 'Sweet Thing', the Supremes' cover of 'Stormy' and Barbara McNair's delicious 'It Happens Every Time'. Essential? I'd say.... and retailing at something like £4.99 even more so!!!

(BB) 5/5


MACY GRAY: 'Ruby' (Artistry/Mack Avenue)

Saturday, 13 October 2018 11:04 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                          altRenowned for a singing voice that resembles a husky but soulful croak, Ohio-born Macy Gray has been making music in her own inimitable way for almost twenty years now. She first broke through to the big time in 1999 with her hit debut album on Epic, 'On How Life Is,' which yielded her biggest single, 'I Try' (it reached No. 6 in the UK). Though the last decade has witnessed something of a decline in the singer's commercial fortunes - which in no way reflects the quality of her musical output - thankfully, she's still making good music as well as taking on the occasional acting role.

'Ruby' is Macy's tenth studio album overall and also her debut for Mack Avenue's R&B-oriented Artistry imprint. It follows in the wake of 2016's 'Stripped,' a delightful one-off LP for Chesky that was recorded live in the studio and showcased the jazz side of the singer's musical personality. Though acclaimed by the critics, it wasn't a commercial success. 'Ruby,' though, may fare better, especially as its lead single, the quirky and infectious  'Over You,' has already been flying high in the US R&B charts and has been getting a fair bit of airplay over  here in the UK.

Besides her distinctive, immediately recognisable, voice, Macy Gray's often quirky and surreal lyrics also reveal that she has a unique take on life. Musically, too, she doesn't fit conveniently into any clearly-defined category or genre, straddling soul, pop, jazz, gospel, hip-hop and even rock styles but without completely inhabiting them. Her music, in fact,  is a curious but engaging sonic amalgam that's beyond category. She is, then, a maverick, and a delightful one at that.  

On 'Ruby' she engages the services of three different producers - namely Johan Carlsson, Thomas Lumpkins, and Tommy Brown - but  despite this, a unified approach prevails and that makes the album feel like a coherent artistic statement.  'Over You' with its big, sing-along anthem of a chorus, has justifiably been getting a lot of attention and though it's arguably the set's killer song, 'Ruby' turns out to be consistently good from start to finish.

The powerful message song, 'White Man,' is another highlight. Propelled by a thumping, bass-drum-heavy electro dance beat, its target is racism, which Macy takes a defiant stand against. In sharp contrast, 'Tell Me' is an antique jazz ballad - circa the 1920s - with a muted trumpet offering bluesy asides to Macy's Billie Holiday-esque phrasing. Different again is a slice of chirpy pop called 'Sugar Daddy' and the playful 'Jealousy' while 'Witness' digs deep into a tropical reggae vibe.

Noted blues guitarist, Gary Clark Jr, contributes a stinging fretboard solo on 'Buddha,' another example of Macy's ability to concoct stirring chorus lines that stubbornly lodge themselves in the grey matter. Humour has always been a feature of Macy Gray's  work and because of that, it's often easy to overlook that she has a serious side. An example of that is provided late on in the album by the reflective beat ballad 'But He Loves Me,' a poignant affirmation of love and affection, that shows a different facet of Macy's character.  

Overall, 'Ruby' is a satisfying album that will please Macy Gray's long-time fans and also, with any luck, attract some new devotees as well. With its seamless and ineffable blend of musical styles combined with zany humour, wry life observations, and heartfelt sentiments, it encapsulates the mysterious and alluring essence of one of R&B's most fascinating artists.  

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Sunday, 14 October 2018 12:59


VARIOUS: The Best of Uno Melodic Records (Expansion)

Friday, 12 October 2018 18:20 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altNow a remarkable 78, Roy Ayers needs no introduction to readers of these august pages! However, I wonder just how many people know that for a time Mr A ran his own record label.... Uno Melodic. He set up the label in 1980 whilst he was pacted to Polydor where by the end of his tenure he was becoming a little frustrated by lack of control. His own label would give him just that. To that end he was keen to have work at the label people he knew and trusted... people he had confidence in and who had confidence in him and his musical abilities and ideas. Sadly in business, reality often trumps sentiment and after three years the label folded. However in that time, Ayers and his team released some mighty fine music... much now, of course, hugely sought after.

If you're not too au fait with Uno Melodic, this new remastered album from Expansion will acquaint you with the best of the label's output. Label boss Ralph Tee (working with both Roy Ayers and Uno Melodic manager Dennis Armstead) has assembled a generous 15 tracks that represent exactly what Uno Melodic was all about.

The album offers three cuts from Ayers – including the anthemic 'Chicago' but the real interest comes from lesser known artists like Sylvia Striplin, Eighties Ladies and Ethel Beatty. Ms Beatty, for instance, was a well-known session and show singer but she only ever released one single in her own name and both sides are here for all to enjoy and 'I Know You Care' and 'It's Your Love' prove that talent and artistry on their own are no guarantee of fame and success.

The other featured artists are Justo Almario, Jaymz Bedford and Bobbi Humphrey... Ayers signed the famous flautist for just one single.

The album ends with a real highlight... a nine minute spoken word item from radio presenter Rick Holmes. 'Remember To Remember' was released on Uno Melodic subsidiary Gold Mink and it's a wonderful, chilled out rambling mini overview of black music, civil rights and Afro-American history and its significance. A fitting end to a lovely CD and for those who like the new fangled format it's also available in double vinyl... it'll never catch on!

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 12 October 2018 18:41


THE BOB JAMES TRIO: Espresso (Revolution/Evosound)

Wednesday, 10 October 2018 13:28 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altIn a long and garlanded career, keyboard doyen Bob James has worked across genres and in a variety of formats. For his latest album, the 11 track 'Espresso', the 78 year old James returns to the format he began his career with – the classic jazz trio... piano, drums and bass. Specifically, here the drummer is veteran Washington DC sticks man, Billy Kilson while bass duties are handled by the more youthful Michael Palazzolo.

The track grabbing the attention at the moment seems to be 'Submarine'. The attention comes from the fact that this "sub" is a re-working of one of Bob's most famous tunes, 'Nautilus'. That one first appeared on the 1974 album 'One' and over the years it's been sampled dozens of times –notably by a varied crew of hip-hop pioneers. (Our statistician, by the way, tells us that Bob James is the 14th most sampled musician of all time!) . So here Bob simply samples himself – safe in the knowledge that he won't need to pay royalties to a third party!

There's a second cut here on which Mr J revisits his past.... a new version of William Salter and Ralph McDonald's 'Mr Magic'. The tune, of course, is most famously associated with Grover Washington Jr but (and, as Michael Caine might say) not a lot of people know this .... Bob James was the arranger and MD for the Washington original. So he feels fully justified putting his spin on it here whilst also allowing drummer Kilson to show his dexterity.

For James, there's more nostalgia on the album's other cover... a version of Fats Waller's 'Ain't Misbehavin'. James tells us that the cut is homage to his wife who passed away 18 months ago. She was a big fan of 30s jazz.

'Topside' is another album highlight. Here the homage appears to be aimed at the classic 60s soul-jazz of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. 'Topside' (with a flavour of Bobby Hebb's 'Sunny') has all the verve live atmosphere and swing of those chart-topping Lewis live albums. Best of the ballads on 'Espresso' is the gentle 'One Afternoon'.

Oddly, maybe, there's no track called 'Espresso' on 'Espresso'. Maybe the music, like the short, sharp coffee, is meant to stimulate and fortify; the 11 tracker sure does.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 October 2018 13:35


THE SPINNERS; While The City Sleeps (Kent)

Tuesday, 02 October 2018 10:50 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altPrior to their huge success at Atlantic, the Spinners were second stringers at Motown. They'd joined the Gordy empire via their connection with Harvey Fuqua but sporadic sessions, limited releases and low key promotion left them very much in the shadows. That despite some excellent output – notably the magnificent 'Sweet Thing' (covered in the UK, of course by George Fame).

Then right at the end of the 60s it almost all changed. A personnel change... GC Cameron in for Chico Edwards and a Stevie Wonder song, 'It's A Shame' saw the Spinners scale the charts. The business heads at Motown naturally demanded an album to capitalise on the success of 'Shame' and so in 1970 the soul world welcomed '2nd Time Around' (that's right, it was their second Motown LP). Long out of print, the album has just won reissue via Ace/Kent under the title 'While The City Sleeps' (more of that later).

Like most 60s and early 70s soul albums, '2nd Time Around' was a cobbled together affair... a collection of old singles and the odd new recording to take the set up to the obligatory 12 tracks. The new ones that were commissioned for the album were covers of the Stairsteps' 'O o h Child' and the Dells' 'I Can Sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue' alongside a new reading of 'My Whole World Ended'. The remaining 9 cuts were mainly Motown chestnuts like 'Bad Bad Weather' and 'Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music'. 'It's A Shame' remains the album highlight – a strong song, beautifully produced and performed. Of note too is a take on the Bobby Scott-penned 'Pay Them No Mind' and a cover of the Moonglows' doo-wop hit 'In My Diary'. On both, the Spinners do what they do best... harmonise sweetly and expertly. The ending on 'Diary' is a thing of harmonic beauty... a tribute to the group and producer Harvey Fuqua, who, of course, was an original Moonglow.

As with most Ace/Kent reissues, this album comes with plenty of bonuses.... here 13 "extras" – of which ten have never been issued anywhere before. They include a remake of the group's very first record 'That's What Girls Are Made For' which sadly comes nowhere near the doo-wop purity of the original and a new mix of the falsetto-led 'While The City Sleeps'. It seems that when Ace/Kent first contacted the Spinners back in 2012 with a view to reissuing their material, group member Bobby Smith asked could this particular track be included. In 2012 the Ace/Kent Spinners' first Motown collection 'Truly Yours' just didn't have space for it to be included... so here it is now and as a mark of respect for Bobby (who passed in 2013), the song has been given album title status.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 October 2018 11:01


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