Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Walter Gibbons, Jungle Music

In the world of dance music, Walter Gibbons’ reputation is an all or none kind of thing:  People either revere him as an immensely talented and creative pioneer of both live turntable-based mixing and studio remixing or they’ve never heard of him.  I’m guessing most people fall into the latter group which is a shame because the people in the former group have it right.  Walter Gibbons was a monster.

Gibbons became widely known in the very early days of the underground dance scene in New York when he became one of the regular DJs at Galaxy 21.  He was exceptional at extending breaks and beat matching records and could handle the turntables with a precision that rivaled Grandmaster Flash.  Galaxy 21 was an after-hours joint and Gibbons became the DJ the other DJs went to see when their gigs ended.

Ken Cayre, one of the owners of the foundational disco label Salsoul Records, heard Gibbons mix two recordings of Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent” during one of Gibbons’ sets and asked him if he could do the same thing in the studio.  Gibbins said no problem and Cayre asked him to make a remix for Salsoul.  Cayre gave Gibbons three hours in the studio to do it.  In those three hours Gibbons extended the album version of the song by almost three minutes and gave Salsoul a remix that outsold the original by two to one and was widely seen as opening record company eyes to the fact that remixes could provide a lucrative revenue stream.

As Gibbons’ life as a studio remixer grew, his career as a live DJ waned.  His career in the studio would soon follow.  A good deal of his professional downslide was due to Gibbons’ personality and his approach to music.  Gibbons was a creative and original artist who focused on the quality of the music he was making to the exclusion of what anyone else wanted to hear.  As a result, he was often way out in front of the curve making music that many in the dance audience weren’t ready to listen to.  “Set it Off”, the first release from a label Gibbons partially owned, is a good example.  It combined elements of early hip-hop and contemporary dance music in ways neither audience was prepared for.  When first played in clubs it would clear the dance floor.  However, DJs who heard the value of the track made it a regular part of their mix and audiences came to demand it once they became familiar with it.

Gibbons was an intensely focused man and when his interest in the Bible and Christianity turned to zealotry, he became very difficult to work with in the studio.  He refused to work on songs that contained lyrics that he didn’t find uplifting or that celebrated what he saw as the degrading and promiscuous side of homosexuality.  He was intolerant of other’s views and given to delivering sermons in the studio.  Working with him became more trouble than it was worth.  Gibbons spent the last weeks of his life living in a YMCA in New York.  He died of complications from AIDS in 1994.  He was 38.

The core of Gibbons’ musical talent lay in his exquisite understanding of and appreciation for rhythm and percussion.  That talent is on display throughout the 14 tracks on Jungle Music‘s 2 discs.  The first disc focuses on his early mixes for labels like Salsoul and includes remixes of tracks by Gladys Knight, the Salsoul Orchestra and Bettiye Lavette among others.  Some of this material may sound like standard disco remix fare until you realize that when Gibbons built these tracks, there was no standard disco fare.  He was making the mold that so many others would use.

The second disc focuses on his later remixes and it is easy to hear how unique Gibbons was and how far beyond most of his contemporaries he had moved.  It’s no accident that two of the remixes on disc two were done for Arthur Russell, another recently rediscovered giant of the early underground music scene.  Some of  Gibbons’ remixes wouldn’t sound out of place today.

Gibbons has been criminally neglected in terms of making his music available for current audiences.  Jungle Music stands as the exception.  The collection includes two discs of high-quality remixes coupled with a booklet with an extensive essay about Gibbons written by Tim Lawrence the author of the superb Love Saves the Day.  Jungle Music may be hard to find but if you like highly creative, rhythmic dance music or if you have an interest in the pioneers of underground dance music or DJ studio remixing, grab a copy while you can.  There is some exceptionally good music here.

Gibbons’ 12″ mix of Strafe’s “Set It Off”

08/30/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Francois K, Choice – A Collection of Classics

For its Choice series, the Azuli label asked well-known DJs to put together a two disc set of tracks that are their personal favorites.  François K is a great choice for a series like this because he had one of the longest and most influential careers in music of any of the legendary DJs from the New York underground dance scene of the 1970’s and ’80s that gave birth to disco, was the foundation on which house was built, and provided the original models for the European mega-dance clubs of today.

His long career in the music industry notwithstanding, François K has chosen a collection of tracks drawn almost exclusively from the 1970s and ’80s.  There’s disco such as Shalimar’s “Right in the Socket” and Donald Byrd’s classic “Love Has Come Around”, soul crooners like Teddy Pendergast (“Only You”) and Colonel Abrams (“I’m Not Gonna Let You (Get the Best of Me)”), tribal rhythms from No Smoke (“Koro Koro”) and more.  Larry Levan fans will be interested in David Joseph’s “You Can’t Hide (Your Love From Me)” which was mixed by Levan along with his remix of Gwen Guthrie’s “(They Long To Be) Close to You”.  The Joseph track is also available on Journey Into Paradise, The Larry Levan Story but François K’s Choice is the only place I’ve seen Levan’s remix of the Guthrie track.

One track on François K’s Choice deserves special mention.  “Baby Wants to Ride” was written and produced by Frankie Knuckles and Knuckles “with” James Principle are listed as the artists.  As many will know, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan acquired the basis of their DJ skills when they were both boy toys living in New York’s notorious Continental Baths.  Influenced by what Levan was doing at the Paradise Garage, Knuckles moved to Chicago and became the resident DJ and motivating force behind The Warehouse which is often cited as the source for the term “house music”.  “Baby Wants to Ride” is 8+ minutes of Frankie Knuckles pretending to get laid.  It is so excruciatingly bad that you wonder if François K holds a long-standing grudge against his fellow New York DJ and is using this opportunity for payback.  The track is beyond dreadful.

In comparison with the Choice collection by Danny Howells, François K’s Choice comes off as a missed opportunity.  Howells mixed his set which gives each of his discs a sense of coherence.  François K doesn’t provide a mix but simply gives us a collection of tracks.  In addition, the booklet that comes with the Howells set includes a brief entry on each track by Howells that tells you a bit about why the track is important to him.  The François K booklet has an essay summarizing his career with nothing from François K himself about why he choose these tracks.  The result is that François K’s Choice feels like someone else’s mix tape.  Meaningful to François K perhaps, but just a random collection of tunes for everyone else.

Larry Levan’s remix of Gwen Guthrie’s “(They Long To Be) Close to You”

07/28/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Juan Maclean, DJ-Kicks

DJ-Kicks is a series of mixes by DJs, music producers and musicians that, at least at the beginning, were designed to be listened to at home.  Juan Maclean’s mix is the 32nd in the series which kicked off in 1995.

Maclean’s DJ-Kicks is a pretty straightforward uptempo party mix of house music that has occasional disco influences.  The set has generally received very positive reviews but it’s just not doing it for me.  The mix starts promisingly with Still Going’s ‘Spaghetti Circus” which does a good job of ramping up the dance intensity.   However, Maclean seems to have been enamored of tracks that feature short vocal phrases that are repeated monotonously throughout the track when he put this mix together.  He uses this techique on track after track and the mix sinks under the weight.

I get the idea that vocal snippets are being used as rhythmic elements and rhythmic elements tend to repeat.  But endlessly repeating rhythm patterns are the bane of this kind of music and shoving the repetition in the listener’s face by putting it in the vocal (which will automatically attract more attention than, say, a repeating kick) just makes the tedium all the more apparent.  When used judiciously, a vocal rhythm part can be very effective.  When it’s used on track after track it’s an invitation to find something else to listen to.  As an example, on Sonny Foderra’s “Everybody Get on the Decks” the phrase captured in the title, or a minor variant of it, is repeated 126 times over 4 mins and 44 secs.  Add to this the 40 times the phrase is repeated at the end of the previous track as Maclean mixes the transition between the two tracks and you end up with a circumstance where it’s hard not to yank the CD out of the player.  Of the 12 tracks that precede “Everybody Get on the Decks”, 10 feature endlessly repeated vocals as rhythm elements.  It’s too much.  Get another idea.

Maclean’s DJ-Kicks is the kind of CD I might drop in the box during a party when you want to keep the crowd moving but are  reasonably sure no one is paying any attention to the music.  If anyone was listening, even halfheartedly, I’d give them something more interesting to listen to.

“Spaghetti Circus” by Still Going

07/21/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Scissor Sisters, Night Work

lol These guys are hilarious.  After they released their self-titled first album, New York’s Scissor Sisters became a huge hit in Canada, Europe, and Australia.  Scissor Sisters was the best selling album in the UK in 2004.  Didn’t happen in the US. Their second album, Ta-Dah, which opened with the just-about-perfect “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin'” continued their success abroad.   Once again it didn’t happen in the US.

The band’s failure to break through in the American market is widely seen to be the result of the fact that their name, music and stage show are openly, flamboyantly and unapologetically gay.  The idea is that the general sexual conservatism, homophobia and sexual paranoia of the American music-buying market prevents them from breaking through.  Now here they are with their third album, Night Work.  They are using an outside producer for the first time.  They have a new label that is dedicated to putting in the hard promotional work that they think it will take to make the band a success in the US.  So what do the Sisters do?  Take a look at the album art.  Homophobes are gonna have their panties in a twist over this one.  Wouldn’t be surprised if Wal-Mart either bans the CD or demands an alternate cover.  The music, if anything, is even less compromising about the band’s sexual interests.   lol  These guys are hilarious.

The core members of the band are Jake Shears and Ana Matronic (vocals), Del Marquis (Guitar), and Babydaddy (bass, guitar, keyboards and programming).  Paddy Boom who was the drummer on their first two albums has been replaced by Randy “Real” Schrager who is listed on Night Work as an “additional player”.  Their music is usually characterized as club music with strong disco, glam rock and pop influences.

The Scissor Sisters go out of their way to . . .uhh . . . thrust their sexual orientation in your face.  If you cut through the sex, you find that they are a really terrific band.  Their songs are very well written, very well engineered and produced, and often brilliantly performed.  In some respects the Scissor Sisters are what Madonna has always wanted to be –  performers of edgy, cutting edge club music.  The difference is that Madonna has always been a wannabe, hijacking somebody else’s scene and hiring this month’s hot producer when it comes time to “recreate” herself again, while the Scissor Sisters are the real thing.   This is a rock solid band whose music is as hard and tight as their asses.

Will another good album from the Scissor Sisters be enough to overcome homophobia in America?  Probably not.  Too bad, that, because people who won’t listen to Night Work because the album art offends them or they can’t handle a song about anal sex are missing some fine music.  If you’re one of those people, consider that the planet has a lot of people on it and a lot of them enjoy sexual practices that are different from the ones you enjoy.  Hell, if your partner is a different gender than you, he or she probably has different sexual tastes than you do.  Get over it.  Your first step can be treating yourself to Night Work.

“Night Work”

“Sex and Violence”

07/10/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Various Artists, Cosmic Disco?! Cosmic Rock!!!

Eskimo Recordings is the label that released Prins Thomas two-disc mix Cosmo Galactic Prism.  So, when I saw they had also released a set called Cosmic Disco?! Cosmic Rock!!! I thought it would be more of the kind of space disco that Prins Thomas is known for.  Maybe with more of a rock influence – which would have been alright with me – but contemporary space disco all the same.  Uhh . . . no.

In the early 80’s one of the hottest club scenes in Italy was happening at the Cosmic Club on Lake Garda.  The DJ who made the club famous was Daniele Baldelli who was renowned for the wide variety of music he played, for the way he mixed tracks from wildly disparate genres together, and for his tendency to monkey around with time, often playing tracks at markedly slower tempos than originally recorded.  On Cosmic Disco?! Cosmic Rock!!! Baldelli joins up with another DJ, Marco Dionigi to present a dance mix of composed of carefully sequenced tracks with a decided rock influence.

The tracks that I recognize on Cosmic Disco?! Cosmic Rock!!! originated in Baldelli’s heyday in the late ’70s and ’80s.  For example he gives us his reworkings of The Thompson Twins’ “Beach Culture”, The Dream Syndicate’s “50 in a 25 Zone”, Ray Parker Junior’s “The Other Woman” and Martha and the Muffins’ “Danseparc”.  Not surprising given Baldelli’s notable skills and the period from which the music is taken, the tracks on Cosmic Disco?! Cosmic Rock!!! are exceptionally well mixed.  The drum programming that gives the set its dance rhythm is very well synced to each track and the tracks are well sequenced with each flowing from the one before smoothly and elegantly.  For me, one of the treats in the set was hearing Spider’s original version of “Better Be Good To Me” released in 1981 which Tina Turner would cover in 1984 with such great success.

If Cosmic Disco?! Cosmic Rock!!! had been released in 1989 it would probably have been a monster.  Released out-of-time in 2008 I expect that it will have somewhat limited appeal.  Which is a shame, really, because Baldelli is a master and it shows.  If you like dance music and have fond memories of music from the ’80s Cosmic Disco?! Cosmic Rock!!! is one you might want to check out.

Spider – Better Be Good To Me from Cosmic Disco?! Cosmic Rock!!!

06/10/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Mark E, Works 2005 – 2009

Mark E is a DJ/producer out of Birmingham, England who works in the house and disco areas and specializes in re-edits.  His work tends to feature the slow accretion and buildup of layers of musical detail until either a crescendo is reached or the song he is working with bursts forth.  Works 2005 – 2009 is just what the name implies, a selection of tracks he has made over a five year period.

Mark E has an uncanny grasp of groove.  At his best he delves deep into the heart of the rhythm and then slowly unfolds it from the inside in a way that can be captivating if you respond to this aspect of music.  As the groove unfolds subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) additions of layers and shifts of emphasis within the mix build tension and hold your interest.  This isn’t easy to do.  Many dance tracks die in a monotonous rut as aimless synth layers come and go over a hammering and largely invariant rhythm track.  With a clear focus on the groove Mark E largely avoids this problem.

Works 2005 – 2009 starts out with two killer tracks.  First up is “Sun Shadow” which is his re-edit of Labelle’s 1972 cover of Cat Steven’s classic “Moon Shadow”.  I’m unfamiliar with the Labelle cover but “Sun Shadow” doesn’t sound like anything remotely similar to the Cat Stevens tune.  It’s a driving groove fest that leads to Patti Labelle going on with some weird rap about how you couldn’t do things you usually do if you lost parts of your body as she introduces the members of the band for brief solos.  It’s beyond strange but Mark E’s groove is so delicious it can’t be resisted and when the piano drops at about the 6:30 mark it’s heaven.

The second track, “You (full vocal mix)” is Mark E’s astonishing re-edit of Diana Ross’s 1978 “You Are the One”.  It opens with a closed high hat rhythm pattern coupled with a finger snap marking the back beat and builds to Ross’s vocal.  So what’s so astonishing about that?  Ross doesn’t show up until about the 5:47 mark.  Mark E creates a rhythm-based intro that lasts for nearly six minutes and holds your attention the entire time.  When she finally arrives Ross takes command and the last two minutes is essentially a vocal crescendo with Ross reaching for the skies.  Astonishing.

The rest of the CD isn’t as successful. While all of the remaining tracks hold moments of interest they don’t have the developing structure of the first two and often come across as exercises in building, developing, and sustaining groove.  Mark E is so good at this that even when the cuts on Works 2005 – 2009 don’t quite work as independent tracks they are a rich source of ideas for anyone interested in making their own groove-oriented music.

“You (full vocal mix)” from Mark E’s Works 2005 – 2009


04/11/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Various Artists, Grand 12-Inches Vol. 3

The Grand 12-Inch series (currently at 5 volumes) collects dance music from the 70s and 80s in the 12″ versions that were specially mixed for club play.  Each of the first three volumes collects 40 tracks Grand 12-Inches Vol. 3spread over four discs.  After reviewing Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and spending the past several weeks enjoying Vol. 3 I’m prepared to say that these discs are the best collections of this kind of music I’ve heard.  It’s no contest, nothing else even comes close.

The sets are put together by Ben Liebrand a Dutch DJ, remixer, and producer who both knows and cares about this music.  Not only has he taken the time to search out these hard to find versions, the tracks he gives us are taken directly from the master recordings.  That means we are not only getting a wealth of good music, we are getting music that, in many cases, sounds spectacular.  In producing music that is designed to sound good when played back in compressed formats through iPod earbuds the industry has been using drastic compression so that music will sound uniformly loud.  The result is music with almost no dynamic range that sounds flat and lifeless when played on anything like a decent sound system.  Compression was not used so heavily in the 70s and 80s so the music sounds much deeper and richer.  Combine this with Liebrand’s inisistence on using the master recordings and you get exceptionally fine sound on many of these tracks.  Crank the volume on these numbers and they sound spectacular.

In most cases the difference between the radio version and the 12″ club version is the latter’s extended break.  Sometimes an extended break would be adapted for the beginning or end of a tune but no matter where they put it in the tune, it was the break that made the 12″ versions so exciting on the dancefloor.  There are so many excellent examples on Vol. 3 that listing them all would come close to listing all forty tracks on the collection.  The Reddings’s “The Awakening” opens with a bass solo that’s like a master class in slap bass.  “I’m Not Gonna Let You Go” features a kick ass break with Colonel Abrams singing a duet with himself in stereo.  I believe the 11+ minute version of M.F.S.B.’s era-defining “Love is the Message” is the Tom Moulton mix.  The 13+ minute extended outro with skit on “Cruisin’ the Streets” by Boys Town Gang is not for people who are offended by, uhh, “alternative” lifestyles. lol  Some other notable tracks include a disco version of Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Everybody”, a 10+ minute live version of the Commodores “Brick House”, Janis Ian’s “Fly Too High” produced by Giorgio Moroder, parts 1 and 2 of The Chaplin Band’s “Madmen’s Discotheque, and much much more.

My only disappointment with Vol. 3 is that the Shelter DJ mix of Earth Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy” won’t play on my main CD transport because of a manufacturing flaw.  It’s a quality control problem at the pressing plant, not a fault of the collection and it’s only one song . . .  But still, it’s a really good song and the volumes in the Grand 12″ series are too expensive to buy a new set just to replace one song.  The series are only available in the US as imports and they’re expensive.  This will likely be a problem for some listeners but the quantity and very high quality of sound reproduction of the music you get easily makes each of the first three volumes worth the cost.  Can’t afford to buy two of them to replace one song, however, which is a bummer because I really like “Fantasy”.

If you like 70s and 80s dance music Grand 12-Inches Vol. 3 is highly recommended.  While cut-down radio versions of some of these songs can be easy to find, the 12″ versions often are not.  You won’t find more of them gathered in one place and reproduced with such brilliant sound as you will find on the volumes in this series.

07/21/2008 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment