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”
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.
The Heavy’s Great Vengeance and Furious Fire sounds like it creeped out of a twisted and demented alternate reality of blues, soul and R&B. It’s a very strange – and very good – CD. Album opener “Brukpocket’s Lament” is a slow, almost glacial, blues built on a simple two-note descending bass riff with a vocal from another planet. When the vocalist sings “I’m startin’ to talk like I’m mentally ill” you believe him. It’s a dark and disturbing way to start an album and it works brilliantly. The very first song knocks the listener askew, demolishes preconceptions and sets you up perfectly for the set of music that follows.
The Heavy are a five-piece out of Bath, England composed of Dan Taylor (guitars), Kelvin Swaby (vocals), Hannah Collins (keyboards), Chris Ellul (drums) and Spencer Page (bass). Their music is hard to describe. Clearly based in the blues, R&B and soul of times past they often use dirty guitars and clattering percussion and have an uncanny ability to make compelling music based on viscous rhythms that would sound like tedious sludge in the hands of almost any other band. Great Vengeance and Furious Fire is shot through with the static and sound snippets of AM radio stations beamed from no town you’ve ever visited, the scratch and pop of old vinyl LPs and vocals that sometimes sound like they were recorded through a busted amp. It feels like you put the CD in the player and opened a portal to a time and place that sounds like America of the 50’s through the 70’s except much more dangerous. The last song, “Who Needs the Sunshine”, ends with several seconds of vinyl rotation scratch from which a twinkling, skipping piano slowly emerges and a vocal ballader from the late ’50s early ’60s sings “Forever my darling . . .” the first half of a couplet that never completes as the record goes silent. It’s exquisitely creepy.
All of this could sound like a one-off novelty record if The Heavy didn’t do it so well. Their vision is warped but they have a solid grasp of the music they mine for inspiration. Great Vengeance and Furious Fire is very strange but it’s also very good music. I don’t know if it’s the sort of thing everyone will enjoy but I’ll be standing in line at the CD store the day they release their next album.