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”
The Phenomenal Handclap Band is all over the place which isn’t so suprising given that the Phenomenal Handclap Band is all over the place as well. The band lists its members as Daniel Collás, Sean Marquand, Patrick Wood, Luke O’Malley, Nick Movshon, Bing Ji Ling, Joan Tick, and Laura Martin. According to the track credits, Ji Ling, Tick and Martin don’t appear on any of the songs on the album. Kimi Recor contributes vocals to 4 of the CD’s 12 tracks and isn’t listed as a member of the band. The track credits list a bewildering array of musicians that appear once and are never heard again.
Things become clearer when you focus on two names. The Phenomenal Handclap Band are basically music producers Collás and Marquand and whoever they happened to get together to contribute to their tracks. Collás and Marquand wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks save one (more on this one later) and play keyboards throughout the album. The band’s website insists they really are a band and maybe an actual band came together in the making of this album but we’ll have to wait for their next release to hear what they sound like.
What The Phenomenal Handclap Band sounds like is somebody’s mix tape who likes 70s funk, R&B, and disco with a healthy dose of psychedelic rock. Like LCD Soundsystem’s recent This Is Happening, many of the tracks on The Phenomenal Handclap Band sound like The Phenomenal Handclap Band doing their version of some other group. “All of the Above” is their version of a Traffic tune; “15 to 20” is like Go Team! with Lady Tiga doing the playground chants instead of a bunch of kids. And so on. Also like the LCD Soundsystem CD you can’t help but think that the original bands did it a lot better.
The one track that Collás and Marquand did not have a hand in writing is “I Been Born Again” which was written by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman. Some listeners may recognize Kaylan and Volman as the duo who formed The Turtles of “Happy Together” fame in 1965. They joined Frank Zappa in 1970 where they began calling themselves The Phlorescent Leech and Eddie, which was later shortened to Flo and Eddie, names they have used ever since. Kaylan and Volman are the vocalists who appear on the terrific Zappa live album Just Another Band From L.A, Chunga’s Revenge and others from the same time period.
I found The Phenomenal Handclap Band to be one of those albums that sounded pretty good on first listen but got old quickly. Too many of the tracks are pale imitations of other people’s work. Maybe with a stable lineup and a refocus on developing their own sound The Phenomenal Handclap Band may generate more interest the next time around.
“All of the Above” from The Phenomenal Handclap Band
Afroskull is a funk-rock-soul-jazz collective originally based in New Orleans and now working out of New York. Their first album, Monster for the Masses in 2000 showed immense promise with at least one all-out kick ass track in “It”. However, for all of their potential, their reach exceeded their grasp as the band was not quite up to consistently realizing songwriter/guitarist Joe Scatassa’s visions. Monster for the Masses is a very good album that would be worth your time to find but the band was not quite ready for prime time. Close, but not quite there.
That’s changed. Shit happened, Afroskull more or less came undone, Scatassa and drummer Jason Isaac moved to New York and Afroskull was reconstituted with Matt Iselin (keyboards), Dan Asher (bass) and Seth Moutal (percussion). Moving to New York gave Afroskull something they didn’t have in New Orleans – access to New York’s cadre of great jazz horn players. No matter what you think of Wynton Marsalis’ rigid, limited, my-view-is-the-only-view approach to jazz, there’s no question that New Orleans has been the home of superb horn players for well over 100 years but for whatever reason Afroskull didn’t hook up with the best of them. They did in New York. On To Obscurity and Beyond the band is joined by baritone sax colossus and original member of the Mingus Big Band Ronnie Cuber along with the Horns of Doom composed of Jeff Pierce (trumpet), Justin Flynn (tenor sax) and Rafi Malkiel (trombone). These guys make Tower of Power sound like a high-school band.
The results are immediately apparent. To Obscurity and Beyond is dense with horn charts that are brilliantly written and tightly executed. World class stuff. The band churns, drives, rips and roars while the horn section blasts into the stratosphere. This is big band funk-rock-jazz music of the first order. Put To Obscurity and Beyond in your CD player and Afroskull stomps into your house, destroys the furniture, scares the neighbors, and leaves everyone sweating, happy, and wanting more.
If you have any interest in driving rock-funk-jazz-soul big band music check out To Obscurity and Beyond. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. If you don’t already have an interest in this kind of music To Obscurity and Beyond would be a great place to start.
Here’s a taste. Turn it up.
“Dance of the Wild Koba” from To Obscurity and Beyond
35 seconds in and you’ll know whether or not you’re going to like Sonidos Gold. “El Sabio Soy Yo”, the opening track starts with four bars of a huge and arresting funk drum vamp. At 10 seconds a powerful soul-review horn section is laid over the drums for 8 bars. Grupo Fantasma then drives the whole thing to a rollicking cumbia at the 12 bar point. It kills. We were hooting, hollering and dancing the very first time we heard it and we haven’t stopped months later.
Grupo Fantasma is an Austin-based Latin big band that mixes funk, soul, cumbia, salsa, rumba and umpteen other latin rhythms in a high energy stew that never quits throughout Sonidos Gold. They are also something of an oddity in the music business as they’ve built their reputation almost solely on word of mouth and incendiary live shows. After selling thousands of CDs out of the back of their van during live gigs they were offered major label support. They turned it down in order to retain full creative control of their music and how it’s packaged.
Based on Sonidos Gold, it sounds like they made the right decision. The album has been in constant rotation in our house for months; we just can’t seem to get it out of the CD player. Typically an album is reviewed here after it drops out of the mix and finds it’s way to the storage rack. Sonidos Gold is the exception to that rule. I expect we’ll be listening to this one until another one of Grupo Fantasma’s albums comes into the house. If you would like an introduction to Latin rhythms, Sonidos Gold would be a great choice as it combines these rhythms with what may be the more familiar soul and funk. If you are a fan of powerful big band Latin music Sonidos Gold is highly recommended. Good times.
Lyrics Born is a Japanese-American MC out of San Francisco who has made a modest career out of going his own way in the face of hip-hop convention. Rather than team up with a producer who creates beats in the studio, Lyrics Born plays with a band. His tunes also place a heavy emphasis on singing and most of his guest artists are singers rather than rappers.
In some respects Everywhere at Once is the polar opposite of the Roots’ Rising Down reviewed in the previous post. Lyrics Born is deeply into funk and R&B and in terms of musicianship his band is leagues beyond the members of Roots. Everywhere at Once is also better recorded than Rising Down which makes listening to it a more pleasant experience at the basic sonic level. On the other hand, the Roots challenge their listeners with thoughtful observations on American social, political and economic life while Lyrics Born doesn’t have much of interest to say. Most of his raps are about his latest infatuation or how proud he is of overcoming whatever he thinks he’s overcme to be as wonderful as he thinks he is. Everywhere at Once also includes two tedious skits and if you’re really out of shape you can burn some extra calories racing to the CD changer to skip past them whenever they come on.
Everywhere at Once shines musically. First song “Don’t Change” rides on a funk groove that is so solid that it’s almost imposible to sit still while it plays. Lyrics Born also has a deep feel for this music so the rhythm of his rap is tight with the groove. It’s a an outstanding track. The rest of the album presents a survey of ’80s and late ’70s funk and R&B. “Cakewalk” combines a Cameo bassline with an Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson chorus. Another good track and those are only two of many. Lyrics Born has a first-rate funk band with Uriah Duffy a standout on bass.
If you like funk and R&B melded with hip-hop Everywhere at Once is more than worth a listen. In fact, it’s a good album to use to introduce people to hip-hop who don’t know very much about it and say they don’t like it, but who enjoy funk. If you want challenging and thoughful lyrical content you’ll have to look elsewhere but if you want to dance and have a good time, it’s here.
The Compass Point recording studio was built near Nassau on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas in the late 1970s by Chris Blackwell the founder of Island Records. In 1979 a stellar house band coalesced in the studio that included Mickey Chung and Barry Reynolds on guitars, Wally Badarou on keybaords, percussionist Uziah “Sticky” Thompson, drummer Sly Dunbar, and Robbie Shakespeare on bass. Funky Nassau contains 13 tracks recorded by a number of artists with this house band during the first half of the ’80s.
Funky Nassau opens with the 12″ version of Grace Jones’s “My Jamaican Guy” and the listener is immediately introduced to the rhythm and groove that were the band’s defining characteristic. Dunbar and Shakespeare would go on to become well known as one of the preminent production teams of their day based on their signature combination of funk, soul and reggae, and you can hear the sound that made them famous all over these sessions.
The most well known tracks on Funky Nassau are the Talking Heads’ “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” which still sounds good and the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” which gets less interesting every time I hear it. Two of the tracks are mixes by giants of the New York underground dance scene of the ’70s and ’80s. Set the Tone’s “Dance Sucker” mixed by Francois Kevorkian is a solid dance club workout while Gwen Guthrie’s “Padlock” mixed by Larry Levan is a fairly run of the mill disco diva track and a bit of a disapointment.
By and large that dichotomy characterizes much of the music on Funky Nassau. There are some outstanding tracks like Dunbar’s “River Niger” and the dub mix of Will Powers’ “Adventures in Success” that are offset by some fairly straghtforward and uninteresting disco and club music like Guy Cuevas’ “Obsession” and Cristina’s “You Rented a Space”. The CD also contains a very nice mix of Bits & Pieces overly familiar “Don’t Stop the Music” and a version of Ian Drury and The Seven Seas Players’s “Spasticus Autisticus” that features terrific instrumental breaks and vocals that are so annoying the song gets skipped more often than heard in our rotation.
The real star of this collection is sound engineer Alex Sadkin. Every track on the CD sounds brilliant. With a band anchored by Dunbar, Shakespeare and Thompson you have to know how to record drums and the bottom end and Sadkin was more than up to the task. Drums are especially difficult to record well and Sadkin was a master. Cymbals ring and decay naturally, snares and hand percussion have the fast attack and snap of live drums, and toms have their natural full bodied sound. It’s exceptionally well done and it’s too bad the booklet doesn’t go into detail about how he did it. Overall, the sound stage is wide and the placement of each instrument in space is clear and distinct. Sadkin had the reputation of being a perfectionist in the studio and the results can be clearly heard in this gloriously recorded music. Funky Nassau is one of the best sounding CDs I’ve heard in a long time.
Musically Funky Nassau is a mixed bag with a combination of memorable and forgettable tunes. It all sounds terrific however, and if you like the funk, soul, reggae hybrid that Shakespeare and Dunbar were known for, you’ll find much to like here.