Peanut Butter Knife

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Dig, Part I

I know I probably shouldn't have done this, but I couldn't help myself Friday night. There's only so long I can go without new music and I had reached my breaking point. So we headed to Square Records in Akron. I told myself I probably wouldn't spend too much since I thought I had picked Square pretty clean of stuff I wanted, but whatever their sources are, they just keep scoring some real gems. So, in what will be an ongoing series here at PBK, here are some short reviews of my best finds this weekend:

The Temptations, Cloud Nine (Gordy/Motown, 1969) Soul doesn't get more psychedelic than this. Finding a near-mint copy of this album for $2 is almost as good as my scoring Neil Young's On the Beach for a quarter at a Chicago garage sale (back in the days before it was out on CD and routinely fetching $50 on eBay). Side 1 features the newly Ruffin-less Tempts stretching out to their most expansive heights. The title track is a technicolor funk delight, while the group offers a highly original take on "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" that rivals Marvin and CCR. The real nugget is the 9-minute psych-funk masterpiece "Run Away Child (Running Wild)". Never could a better case be made for the superiority of vinyl than this track, which when played at the proper volume can make you feel like you are in the studio with Motown's session pros finding a vibe that they probably never knew they had. The interplay between the tight rhythms, soulful harmonies, and soaring improvisational funk/jazz guitar is unparalleled. Each listen reveals another subtle layer of complexity.

The songs on Side 2 are in a more traditional pop-soul vein, but Dennis Edwards vocals are beginning to point the Tempts away from the classic uptempo Northern soul sound and into some deeper territory that would define the soul music of the early 1970s. This record deserves to be mentioned among the greats of all time.

Dr. John Desitively Bonnaroo (Atco, 1974) With my recent fixation on Allen Toussaint, I suppose it was only a matter of time before I began discovering one of New Orleans' other soul legends, Dr. John. Desitively Bonnaroo seems like a great place to start too. The music is a deep-fried southern funk, with bubbling rhythm section and the patented NOLA chicken-scratch guitar courtesy of the legendary Meters.

"(Everybody Wanna Get Rich) Rite Away" is one of those rare grooves that begs for immediate repeat listening. Tom Piazza wrote a book on Why New Orleans Matters, but if there are still any non-believers in the house, they need to listen to this song or Allen Toussaint's "Soul Sister" to really get the idea.

Harry Nilsson Pussy Cats (RCA, 1974)Recorded with John Lennon during their hedonistic "lost weekend", this one is going to take a few listens before truly digesting, but my first impression is that this is completely brilliant. Nilsson was allegedly sick during much of the recording, but didn't want to let this on to Lennon and so you can hear his voice getting weaker and more desperate with each track. Lennon was probably loving it as the result is something not unlike the "primal scream" vocals on Plastic Ono Band. The contrast between Nilsson's voice and the backing tracks recorded by studio vets like Jim Keltner and Klaus Voorman only adds to the stark feeling of the album.

Chocolate Milk We're All in This Together (RCA, 1977) More NOLA funk produced by Allen Toussaint. Every time I go digging, I like to pick up something that I have never heard of before just based on album, cover, label, credits, etc. Sometimes I'm disappointed, but its always worth it because sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised, like in the case of this LP by Chocolate Milk.

By 1977, traditional funk and soul production was giving way to disco, which may explain why Chocolate Milk never had more than regional success. Tracks like "Grand Theft" must have been filling dance floors across the south in the late 70s, because the grooves are undeniable. Toussaint's genius cannot be understated here either. Even when the band overreaches on weaker material like "Help Me Find the Road", Toussaint's arrangements (especially on the vocals) keep things interesting, and more importantly, soulful!

Eddie Harris (& His Electric Saxophone) Plug Me In (Atlantic, 1968) Another blind pick, Eddie Harris was a jazz chameleon, often experimenting both in instrumentation and style. Here he plugs in the sax and comes up with some seriously funky Motown inspired arrangements sure to upset the purists of the time. The album feels all too short at about 27 minutes. The music isn't quite as remarkable as some of the other finds, but Harris' seems to have a great sense of humor and fun about his music that still makes this a worthy listen. A title like "Theme (In Search of a TV Commercial)" would probably be appropriate on many so-called indie rock albums today.

Billy Preston The Kids & Me (A&M, 1974) Preston's 70s material isn't known for its great depth or importance. He was always too pop for soul & funk fans and too funky for wider mainstream acceptance. His lyrics are often a bit trite as well. Still, he has a great voice and is a monster on the keys, so on his best material like "Nothin' From Nothin'" and the moog instrumental "Struttin'" his shortcomings are easily forgiven. However if you were ever wondering if the original version of "You Are So Beautiful" was actually good, I'll save you the trouble. It's not.

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