Another two-CD package in SoulMusic Records’ anthology series, featuring this time the Tower Of Power, a defining funk and soul group for almost four decades. The 35 track anthology covers titles lifted from the Columbia released “Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now”, “We Came To Play” and “Back On The Streets” (1976-1979), while the second disc covers “Monster On A Leash”, “T.O.P”, “Souled Out” and “Rhythm & Business” issued by Epic Records (1991-1997). Aw, and there’s some sweet soul sounds to be enjoyed here too. “You Ought To Be Havin’ Fun”, their debut Columbia single, is one: full of instant hooklines and chorus against a chugging beat. Likewise, “Bittersweet Soul Music” and “Somewhere Down The Road”: magic in those grooves for sure. They move and sway at an easy pace. The driving “Soul With A Capital ‘S’” kicks off the second disc, with its little JB riff, before the group play homage to the man himself with “Diggin’ On James Brown”. Lashings of brass introduce the steady “How Could This Happen To Me”, leaving the leisurely “Come To A Decision” to warm the soul. The fullness of the music is a rich backdrop that gravitates towards the soulful, but rarely restrained, lead vocal, itself complimented by a sympathetic chorus. Not every track passes muster but, I have to say, on the whole, there’s not a lot to dislike here. The material covers all the emotions from resilience to vulnerability, commitment to betrayal, love and hate, through some of the finest exponents of soul deliveries.
THE SUPREME VOICES COLLECTION: FEATURING FORMER LADIES OF THE SUPREMES: JEAN TERRELL, SCHERRIE PAYNE, LYNDA LAURENCE, CINDY BIRDSONG WITH SUNDRAY TUCKER, FREDDI POOLE, JAYNE EDWARDS (ALTAIR RECORDS)
This long awaited 3-CD package has enjoyed unprecedented social media promotion and support, liken to, say, the announcement of a forthcoming Star Wars movie. When word first escaped this project was nearing completion, ripples of music were available online to tempt us. With some of the finest female voices in the business, these tasters left us wanting more. As you probably know, I’ve always had the highest regard and love for these ladies of soul and song who, despite great odds, have with the approval of Berry Gordy and Diana Ross, kept the name of The Supremes alive. Included in this musical package is a dvd of their 20th anniversary gala concert recorded at Hollywood’s Fonda Theatre in California. The ladies perform classics from The Supremes’ catalogue, like “Reflections”, “Where Did Our Love Go/Baby Love”, through to “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking”, with a sideways dip into “Respect” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. However, what I loved the most was the friendly interaction between artists and audience; the feeling of mutual respect and the easy exchange of bantering. Awards were presented to every Supreme, past and present, and it was such joy to see Cindy collecting hers in person. Moving to the second disc featuring remixes and bonus tracks, most produced by the trio’s most dedicated of producers, Rick Gianatos. To be honest, I’m not a great lover of extended remixes, alternate versions and so on, but absolutely appreciate there’s a value to them on several levels. “Up The Ladder To The Roof”, “Stoned Love”, “Sisters United (We’re Taking Control)” and “Moving On Up” are among the titles included here. So, on to the first disc. And what an incredible experience it is with their dynamic harmonies: listen to Lynda soar to heaven and back on “Breaking And Entering” for instance. She’s absolutely flawless! This gal takes no prisoners. The ladies’ impeccable vocals that sweep and soar across and beyond the driving dance beats so prevalent through the majority of the tracks here, are emotionally charged, enhancing the overall scorching excitement. Their sizzling debut single “Give Me The Night” is a fine example of this as it hits the explosive disco nerve right on, without losing sight of the song’s original delivery. Fabulous! “Somewhere Out There” is awesome as it gnaws away at delicate emotions, while the burning “Road To Freedom” engages instantly with its strong delivery. As a whole, this CD is gutsy and spiritual; crammed with musical visions against a background of solid, driving music, while bursting with stylish, elegant presentations from four main players in the Motown story. Need I say more.
ULTRAFUNK ULTRAFUNK/MEAT HEAT (ROBINSONGS)
Well, these two CDs set my memory into overdrive by revisiting the seventies with some of the smoothest, funkiest sounds that got dancers getting into the groove on nights out. Apparently, these tracks are all of Ultrafunk’s known recordings, and is a timely release to placate their rising cult following, although it’s rather perplexing to see a half naked lady holding a nonplussed chicken on the front cover of “Meat Heat”. (I dread of think of the connotations surrounding this) Recording on the much-revered Contempo label, the group was something of an enigma as their pictures didn’t appear on album sleeves, nor did they conduct media interviews. Years later though, their identity was revealed but I won’t give the game away here. However, the well respected Charles Waring, who penned the excellent CD notes, does reveal the membership and confirms the group was the brainchild of Gerry Shury, a bespectacled white guy, who had mastered the piano, saxophone and clarinet. From here, Shury successfully wrote for acts, notably “Guilty” for The Pearls (later covered by First Choice) and Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting”. Also much in demand as a session singer, Shury’s name was attached to Jimmy Helms, Major Lance and The Real Thing, among others. Certainly a man of many talents. During the early seventies, the studio group, Ultrafunk, was formed to be signed to Contempo, itself born from the import record shop of the same name run by John Abbey, Blues & Soul magazine’s first editor. In actual fact, John chose the name Ultrafunk, and their later sister group, The Armada Orchestra, his take on MFSB. Although the group never enjoyed mainstream chart success, their name was synonymous with best UK dance music, and it’s easy to see why from the music playing now. Check out “Kung Fu Man” featuring Freddie Mack, or the re-worked soul titles like Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” and “I Wish”, plus Bill Withers’ “Who Is He And What Is He To You” and “Use Me”. There’s also four bonus tracks including the instrumental and 7” single versions of “Kung Fu Man”. Ultrafunk injected a new styling into British funk; plenty of brass against cool chugging beats, with plucking guitars highlighting the changing grooves. Nothing hurried; the music just eases along at a steady pace which is typical of most of the tracks here. And therein lies their beauty.
ZAPP: THE NEW ZAPP IV U/VIBE (ROBINSONGS)
There’s no pausing for breath with this pair of CDs from the stylish funk outfit simply known as Zapp, under the leadership of Roger Troutman. Following the reissue success of their first trio of albums, here we have the next couple. First out, “The New Zapp IV U” from 1985, crammed with electronic devices capable of reproducing a plethora of freaky sounds that was so relevant to the group’s overall music. This state-of- the-art technology put them head and shoulders above their competitors, and as such they became major players in the business. Their take on “I Only Have Eyes For You” is disconcerting to say the least, with its distorted vocals and sharp beat; the song’s actual title is the only line I recognised. Spawning the singles “It Doesn’t Really Matter”, “Itchin’ For Your Twitchin’” (eh?), and the biggest of all, “Computer Love” which is compulsive listening and elevated the album to gold status. It was, I believe, the last to feature Troutman who decided to pursue a solo career. Hearing this today, the all embracing sound is rather passé to these ears, especially the precision-styled funk beat, that was, at the time, so on-the-button and excitingly engrossing. Four years later the “Vibe” album followed, featuring the harmonised Smokey Robinson composition “Ooh Baby Baby” which The Miracles recorded to perfection. “Been This Way Before” and “Ain’t The Thing To Do” are surprisingly welcoming with their low-keyed melodies, while a couple of highlights are a version of The Ohio Players’ seventies hit “Fire” and the burning “I Play The Talk Box”. Summing up then, these CDs left me ‘funked out’ from an unpleasant trip, with moments of unexpected respite from the electronic cacophony. Did I say this out loud?