Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review of Sly & The Family Stone's Stand!

Sly & The Family Stone's Stand!On their fourth studio album, Sly & The Family Stone took listeners on a sonic joyride. Stand! (released in 1969) is bursting at the seams with innovative ideas, stellar musicianship and great songs. The band had recorded first-rate material prior to Stand!, but that still didn’t prepare listeners for this mind-blowing aural experience. Rock, funk, gospel, pop, soul, blues and psychedelia intersect on this raucous and exhilarating album. And what Sly & the Family Stone have created is truly a revelation.

First up is “Everyday People,” a pop-soul ditty that advocates tolerance and unity. The song’s construction is very simplistic. It starts with basic piano chords that are accompanied by a bouncy bass line and a steady mid-tempo beat. The intro is so poppy and simple that is sounds like it could be the opening for a song by a ‘60s bubblegum pop group like the Archies or the Lemon Pipers—that is until Sly’s soulful, heartfelt vocals kick in. The song has a nursery-rhyme feel to it but with strong gospel overtones; the high point of the song is its swelling, gospel-tinged chorus. “Everyday People” immediately hooked radio listeners and became one of the band’s biggest hits.

And on the opposite end of the album’s musical spectrum, there’s “Sex Machine,” a bluesy, funky shuffle of a groove. Clocking in at 13:46, “Sex Machine” allows the band members to cut loose and show off their chops. Larry Graham burns down the house with a scorching fuzz bass solo, and Sly tears it up with some trippy talk-box scatting on guitar. Also, his brother Freddie holds it down with a nasty Wah-wah guitar solo, and sax player Jerry Martini and drummer Greg Errico get their moments to shine.

The album also contains uplifting, inspirational songs, such as “Stand!” and “You Can Make It If You Try.” “Stand!” is a rousing black pride and counterculture anthem; it has some great horn lines from Martini and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson. “You Can Make It If You Try” has a fun, circusy vibe with Sly contributing a terrific calliope-like organ solo.

And let’s not forget “Sing A Simple Song,” a massive hydrogen-bomb funk assault. It begins with an effect that sounds like a vacuum cleaner being turned on and then jumps into the song proper with sister Rose belting out an impassioned soul cry to kick off the proceedings. The song percolates with highly syncopated funk that never lets up. And check out the amazing vocal layering on the bridge (the “doe rey me” section).

“I Want To Take You Higher,” is a ferocious rock track that rumbles with wild anarchic abandon. The song boasts some wicked horn play by Martini and Robinson and a killer harmonica solo served up by Sly. The band raised the roof with this cut at Woodstock.

And we go from “Higher,” to “Somebody’s Watching You,” a tune with a sweet and innocent-sounding vocal arrangement that belies the song’s slightly ominous lyrics. This song shows what an inventive and clever lyricist Sly was in his prime.

“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” is a freakafied, in-your-face attack on racism. Sly brings back the talk-box on this blistering funk/rock cut. Near the song’s end, it sounds like the band has grooved into orbit.

On Stand! Sly further demonstrated his mastery in the recording studio and his musical versatility. He wrote, composed, arranged and produced every song on the album and pulled out all the stops with studio tricks and other sonic experiments. This album proved without a doubt that Sly & The Family Stone were one of the baddest, most innovative bands of any era in rock or soul music.

Download Stand! at Amazon

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Stevie Wonder: A Visionary Who Wrote A New Chapter In Music History

Stevie WonderStevie Wonder performs at the White House (Photo by Pete Souza, official White House photographer)

The word genius gets thrown around willy-nilly these days. However, when it’s applied to Stevie Wonder, it’s not just hyperbole as one could make a strong argument to support the claim.

For starters, Stevie’s a consummate multi-instrumentalist, a master on piano, drums, synthesizer, harmonica, clavinet, melodica, celeste, congas and bongos. Moreover, he was a child prodigy and was signed to Motown at age 11. When he was 13, he had his first major hit with “Fingertips (Pt 2).” On the song, the wunderkind turned in an assured and passionate vocal performance that belied his years. He also pulled off an amazing harmonica solo on the song. Throughout his teens, Stevie continued to burn up the charts with hits like “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “I Was Made To Love Her,” and “My Cherie Amour.” In addition, the gifted young artist co-wrote many of his early hits with Motown as well as songs for other artists on the label, including the Spinners and Smokey Robinson .

When Stevie turned 21, he renegotiated his contract with Motown, which granted him complete creative control over his musical output. The new contract made him one of the first artists to write, produce, arrange and perform his own songs. It also provided Stevie the freedom to explore the far reaches of his imagination and put it on wax. This resulted in an incredible run of albums in the ‘70s, starting with Music of My Mind in 1972 through Songs In The Key of Life in 1976. This came to be known as Stevie’s classic period in which he released one brilliant album after another.

Not only is Stevie a sensational musician, but he’s also a fantastic songwriter who possesses a strong melodic sense combined with great technical ability. He’s written great songs in a variety of music styles over the years, including funk, pop, blues, reggae, jazz, gospel, folk, soul and even country-and-western. He can drop a nasty funk groove like “Maybe Your Baby,” then floor you with a beautiful ballad like “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” And he can make you smile with the infectious, Latin-flavored “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” or almost bring to tears with the elegiac “They Won’t Go When I Go.”

People who are only familiar with Stevie’s post-‘70s work often don’t realize what an inventive and groundbreaking artist he was in his prime. For one thing, he pioneered the use of synthesizers in R&B music. In addition, Stevie added his own innovations to funk music. He blew listeners away with his unique brand of clavinet-driven funk on monster cuts like “Superstition” and “Higher Ground.” He was also one of the first R&B artists to release albums that were fluid, cohesive musical statements rather than just a random collection of songs. Moreover, Stevie is responsible for some of the most beautiful ballads ever written in popular music. Musical gems such as “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever),” “Too Shy to Say,” and a slew of others prove that Stevie is without peer as a ballad writer.

And let’s not forget Stevie’s amazing voice, one his most effective and moving instruments. It’s supple yet gritty and unbelievably soulful. There have been numerous vocalists who have attempted to imitate Stevie’s vocal style and technique, but none have come close to capturing his nuance, passion and soul.

In addition to making great music, Stevie’s a very outspoken social activist who has never been afraid to infuse his political views into his songs. For instance, he lambasted the Nixon administration for its duplicity and indifference on the scathing “You Haven’t Done Nothin',” and he tackles racism and urban blight on the epic “Living For The City.” Some of his other political songs include “Big Brother,” “Cash In your Face” and “Heaven Help Us All." And Stevie puts his money where his mouth is outside the recording studio. Over the years, he’s been involved in a number of civil rights campaigns and other humanitarian and philanthropic endeavors. One of them was his spearheading of the campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, for which he wrote the song “Happy Birthday” to honor the late civil rights leader. Some of Stevie’s other noteworthy efforts include his work to help end apartheid in South Africa and his participation on “We Are The World,” a musical all-star benefit song released to raise money for famine relief in Africa.

Although Stevie has continued to make great music through the years, he has never quite equaled the brilliance of those albums he released in the ‘70s. But very few artists have been able to maintain such a high level of creativity and excellence. The ‘70s were the decade where Stevie’s genius shone the brightest, and that’ something we all can be thankful for.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Earth, Wind & Fire: Musical Messengers on a Mission

Earth, Wind & Fire
Earth, Wind & Fire were a band to be reckoned with throughout the 1970s and early ‘80s. Led by Maurice White, former session drummer for Chess Records and player for The Ramsey Lewis Trio, EWF took the music world by storm with a slew of R&B and pop hits and dazzling concerts.

One of the things that set Earth, Wind & Fire apart from a lot of other popular R&B bands at the time was the cosmic, mystical air they had about them. They came across as musical sages with an important message to share with the world. Indeed, EWF were a band on a mission, and their quest was to spread positivity and inspire their listeners. They took on the role of spiritual cheerleaders for their audience, preaching self-reliance, self-awareness and self-improvement. EWF tried to instill in their listeners that they could achieve anything if they set their minds to it. And for some reason, all this felt genuine and not just a good marketing gimmick.

But in order to get people to listen to your message, you’ve got have something to grab their attention first, and EWF were more than up for the challenge. White assembled a group of the baddest players this side of P-Funk. The band included bass virtuoso Verdine White (Maurice’s brother) and singer/songwriter/percussionist Philip Bailey, who possesses a four-octave vocal range and a beautiful falsetto that would make Smokey Robinson envious. Rounding out the line-up were the super-tight Phenix Horns (Don Myrick saxophones, Louis "Lui Lui" Satterfield trombone, Rahmlee Michael Davis trumpet and Michael Harris trumpet); keyboard wizard Larry Dunn; talented axe men Al McKay, Roland Bautista and Johnny Graham; and dynamic drummers Ralph Johnson and Fred White (brother to Maurice and Verdine).

And then there’s Maurice White, founder and leader of EWF. As the band's guiding light, White wore many hats: songwriter, drummer, producer, arranger, timbales and kalimba player, and vocalist. And he handled all these duties with equal brilliance. In addition, White was a great showman who knew how to take control onstage and immediately connect with the audience.

Earth, Wind & Fire's music moved listeners of all ages, races and nationalities. The band’s sound was as multicolored as their costumes--a rich stew of funk, jazz, Latin, rock, African, pop, gospel and soul. They could jump from roof-raising funk to catchy pop to intricate jazz to gorgeous ballads and do it all well. The band was on a winning streak in the ‘70s, dropping hit after hit, including “Mighty Mighty,” “Shining Star,” “Can't Hide Love,” “Reasons,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and “Fantasy.” And they were not just a great singles’ band but also had strong cohesive albums, such as That's the Way of the World, All ‘N All and Gratitude. Moreover, the band has sold more than 90 million albums worldwide and won six Grammys.

And their concerts were captivating displays of impeccable musicianship combined with great showmanship and elaborate stage sets—sort of like Miles Davis meets P.T. Barnum. They even hired magicians Doug Henning and David Copperfield to make their shows even more spectacular.

During the ‘70s and early ‘80s, EWF earned their spot as one greatest bands of all time, even having some critics dub them “The Black Beatles.” But EWF didn’t need to be compared to any band, because they were amazing and unique in their own right. No one will ever forget the mighty Earth, Wind & Fire as they left an indelible mark on popular music.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

James Brown: Still Underrated After All These Years

James Brown Photo by Soul Portrait

Although James Brown has received tons of accolades for his incredible talent, I feel that he is still underrated. By many, he’s remembered as a tremendously gifted showman who released great records to dance to. However, that is just scratching the surface of what the legendary artist had accomplished in his 50-year career in the music industry. Much more than just a great entertainer, Brown was one of the most important and influential music artists of the 20th century.

During the mid-1960s, Brown reshaped the musical landscape with the creation of a raw, rhythm-heavy form of R&B that we’ve come to know as funk. This new music style was polyrhythmic and heavily syncopated and more earthy than most of the R&B that was heard on the airwaves at the time. The rhythm took precedence over melody and harmonies in this fresh new sound, which was quite unique at the time. Brown's grooves were explosive; the guitars, bass, drums, and horns ricocheted off one another to form the sonic equivalent of a combustion engine. In Brown's hands, all the instruments functioned as percussive components in support of the groove. Funk is all about the groove and how it moves the listener on an instinctive and visceral level.

Additionally, Brown’s funk possessed a tribal edge and had direct ties to his African roots. Funk immediately connected with America's black youth. It spoke to them in a way that no other previous genre ever had. Funk represented the freedom of pure black expression with all of its visceral power and authenticity intact. It was rebellious, aggressive, unabashed and in-your-face, not tamed and watered-down for easy mainstream consumption. Consequently, the existence of funk alone was a huge political statement. Before long, people of all races and social standing around the world began to embrace the funk. The power of "the One" was just too strong to ignore or deny.

Funk took center stage in the ‘70s with the emergence of popular funk bands such as Earth, Wind & Fire, The Ohio Players, Kool & The Gang and The Average White Band. These bands charged full force through the funky path that Brown had blazed for them the previous decade. In addition, innovative, groundbreaking music acts such as Sly & the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and Parliament-Funkadelic expanded on Brown’s blueprint, adding their own unique touches to the  genre. And in that decade, Brown remained at the top of his game, dropping countless funk classics, including “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” “Funky Drummer,” “Super Bad ” and “The Payback.”

Moreover, Brown’s dynamic performance style also proved to be very influential. Superstar artists/performers like Michael Jackson, Prince and Mick Jagger owe a great debt to the Godfather of Soul. When you watch their live performances, Brown’s influence is undeniable.

Additionally, his grooves were the foundation for early rap records via samples. Hip-hop music wouldn’t have even existed without Brown’s funk. And he anticipated rap on early-‘70s records such as “Escape-ism” and “King Heroin” in which he spoke the lyrics instead of singing them. And let’s not forget “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud,” one of the most iconic black pride anthems of all time, where he rapped the main verses and only sang on the song’s famous chorus and the bridge.

Disco music was another descendant of funk. In fact, most contemporary dance music can be traced back to Brown’s early funk grooves--house, techno, trance, trip hop, jungle/drum ‘n’ bass, breakbeat, etc. And Brown’s influence is not only restricted to R&B, hip-hop and dance music; it also can be heard in pop, rock and even alternative music. Alternative funk-metal bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus and Faith No More are all products Brown's pioneering funk innovations decades earlier.

And if that weren’t enough to remove any doubts of Brown’s massive impact on popular music, let’s take a peek his accomplishments on the charts. He had 99 singles make Billboard’s top 100. The only artist to have more was Elvis Presley. Additionally, he had a staggering 116 entries on the Billboard’s R&B singles charts, seventeen of which went to number one. Only Stevie Wonder and Louis Jordan had more number ones on the R&B charts.

Also, his concerts were the stuff of legend. Brown (aka “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and "Mr. Dynamite") electrified audiences all over the world with his powerhouse performances and set the bar unbelievable high for every performer who came after him.

As a way to measure Brown’s amazing legacy, try to imagine what popular music would be like without him… didn’t think you could.

James Brown & the Famous Flames turn out the T.A.M.I. Show with an explosive, history-making performance in 1964.

James Brown and the original J.B.'s tear up the stage on an Italian TV show in 1971.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Underrated Bass Players

This is a list of some great players whose talents I think have been sorely overlooked:

Verdine White (Earth, Wind & Fire) - I know he's respected by his peers and music journalists, but his name rarely comes up on music forums when people make up lists of great bass players. Verdine is wizard on the instrument, and more people need to recognize his gifts.

Colin Moulding (XTC) - He always brought something interesting to his bass lines, great melodic sense combined with amazing technical precision.

Jermaine Jackson - I've heard some people don't even believe he ever actually played the bass on any of the Jackson 5 or Jacksons' songs or any of his solo work, but rather had a stand-in playing his bass parts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jermaine is a consummate bass player who held down the bottom on the Jacksons' tunes as well as his solo work. I think many people were so mesmerized by his brother MJ that they often overlooked his considerable talents.

Carol Kaye - She played bass on several of the Beach Boys hits and was a Motown session player and added bottom to a number of Phil Spector productions. And that's not even scratching the surface of all of her accomplishments on the instrument. But for some reason, she never got the recognition that someone like James Jamerson received.

Cordell "Boogie" Mosson and Rodney "Skeet" Curtis - Both brought heavy doses of funk as bass players for the P-Funk army but were usually overshadowed by the more flamboyant Bootsy Collins.

Prince - Yeah, I said it. He's more recognized for his guitar-playing abilities, but if you really listen to some of his bass work, you'll realize he's a helluva player on the instrument.

The Top Five Songs Written By Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson has garnered heaps of well-deserved praise for his gifts as a singer, performer and dancer over the years. But his songwriting abilities are frequently underrated or completely overlooked. I've run into many otherwise musically knowledgeable people who didn't even know he had written and composed many of his best and most iconic tracks. They were under the impression that all of his songs were written by others.

The pop/soul superstar was more than just a song-and-dance man or producer's puppet but an extremely creative artist who played a integral part in the creation of his own sound and musical direction. So with that in mind, I decided to put together a list of what I think are the top five songs MJ wrote and composed.

1) Billie Jean - This song is epic in every way. I can say without hesitation that "Billie Jean" is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded, from its pulsating bass/drum intro to MJ's anguished vocals to the haunting string and synth flourishes. And let's not forgot the incredible chorus. He's touched on similar themes of paranoia, betrayal and fear on other tracks but never more brilliantly than on "Billie Jean."

2) Beat It - Rock, pop and R&B wrapped into one exhilarating package. "Beat It" boasts a monster riff that any rocker would be proud to call his or her own, and MJ bites into every verse with a sense of urgency and clenched anger. And the icing on the cake is Eddie Van Halen's face-melting guitar solo.

3) Stranger In Moscow - MJ's voice aches with sadness on this beautiful, atmospheric meditation on loneliness and isolation. The song is magnificently arranged with gorgeous harmonies and delicate synth lines--a criminally underrated gem.

4) Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough - I like how the intro is just MJ speaking softly over a hypnotic synth bass line and slight percussion, and then suddenly, the track explodes into this amazing whirlwind groove. From the soaring string parts to the percolating guitar and keyboard riffs to MJ's soul-stirring falsetto, this cut is pure sonic joy.

5) Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' - This was the perfect track to kick off side one of Thriller. The propulsive bass line drives this gargantuan groove, and MJ delivers his verses in funky rapid-fire succession. The song is a rhythmic masterpiece, full of tight brass jolts, infectious keyboard lines and hyper-kinetic guitar riffs. It reaches its climax on the African tribal chant, which is heightened by the multi-overdubs of MJ chanting "mama-say-mama-sa-mama-coosa!"

Other great MJ-penned songs that just missed making the cut:
  • Smooth Criminal
  • Streetwalker
  • Bad
  • Working Day and Night
  • Dirty Diana
  • This Place Hotel
  • Leave Me Alone
  • The Way You Make Me Feel
  • Who Is It

Welcome to Funkatropolis

What's up peeps. This is a blog designed for those who love to read and talk about music. I hope you like it.

To kick things off, here's the late, great singer/guitarist Glen Goins from Parliament/Funkadelic taking the audience to church singing "Mothership Connection."