File Between: War and Manu Dibango
Comments: I knew that Osibisa was one of the first African bands to make any kind of a splash in Western rock and funk circles, but I hadn’t realized just how much they’d internalized Western rock and funk — much of this could have been off an album made by any groovy collective of the period, especially when Robert Bailey, of the nondescript R&B voice, sings his generic lyrics. When they get a head of steam up, they’re excellent, and the middle section of the record, which is devoted to more particularly African and Latin sounds, cooks hard, but the songs in English tend to be embarrassing. I know it’s ridiculous of me to have a grudge against a Ghanian-Caribbean-and-American band for not sounding like Fela Kuti, but not nearly enough in the grooves lives up to the wild outness of the sleeve. (The storming funk of “Ye Tie Wo,” the funky salsa of Willie Colón rewrite “Che Che Kule,” and the dreamy highlife of “Mentumi” excepted.)
A Keeper? Those three songs are essential; and all the rest have their moments, even International Mood Music stuff like “So So Mi La So.” Plus, the sleeve’s a total classic.
Vinyl Rip: Ye Tie Wo
Carol Hall, Beads and Feathers
File Between: Carole King and Bette Midler
Comments: If you know the name Carol Hall at all, it’s most likely as the lyricist and composer for the 1978 musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. She was both a genuine Texan (born and raised in Abilene) and a genuine composer in the Tin Pan Alley tradition — she wrote songs for Tony Bennett and for the Free to Be You and Me compilation. But here in the early 70s, she scored a deal with Elektra, which pretty much only knew how to market singer/songwriters. So she was a singer/songwriter for a couple of albums, this one being the second and last. And it’s very much the kind of record you might expect a Texan with a bent for musical theater to produce: the lead instrument is piano (played by Hall herself), and the songs tend to be character studies in broad emotional strokes, with a recurring theme being the oppositional pulls of the country and the city. She’s not a great singer (she sounds in places like a less shrewd Bobbie Gentry), and her Texas accent can be so mannered as to sound like a put-on, but on the few midtempo (there’s only one uptempo) songs she manages a passable soft-rock style. As you might expect from a composer, the songs are better than the performances.
A Keeper? If I ever need to raid forgotten songwriters for uncovered gems, I have a starting point.
Vinyl Rip: I Never Thought Anything this Good Could Happen to Me
Bobby Womack, Understanding
File Between: Isaac Hayes and Sam & Dave
Comments: The more I listen to, the less definitive any statements I can make seem, but 1972 certainly seems to have been a high tide for a certain kind of funky, cinematic soul. Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, of course, is the standard by which all others must be judged, but though Womack isn’t much interested in Mayfield’s sweet aching falsetto, preferring a gritty Southern shout (this record was recorded in Memphis and Muscle Shoals), there’s a similar gorgeous texture to the hard-driving, snaky rhythms he keeps returning to. Even standard covers like the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” are souped-up into epics of soulful pleading and extemporaneous gospelly patter. “Woman’s Gotta Have It” was the record’s hit, but it’s almost the least interesting song on the album, washed-out and mellow where the rest are hard-charging and high-contrast. Womack was pretty busy around this time (the other album he released in 1972 was the soundtrack to Across 110th Street), but he sounds at the peak of his powers here, screaming and shouting like a Sixties soulman over beds of sweet, funky rhythm that are pure Seventies. The record closes with the requisite early-70s social-commentary number, “Harry Hippie”, and it’s pretty bad, but up to there it’s one of the best soul albums I’ve heard for this project — which makes it one of the best albums period.
A Keeper? I only wish everything else I listened to for this project was this rewarding.
Vinyl Rip: Thing Called Love
Cashman & West, A Song or Two
File Between: James Taylor and America
Comments: Terry Cashman and Tommy West were a couple of New York-based bubblegum-pop entrepreneurs in the late 60s, writing hits for Spanky & Our Gang and scoring minor hits in Canada. This record is most notable for the ten-minute opus which opens side two, “American City Suite” (which, the back of the record informs me, is composed of the songs “Sweet City Song,” “Hello Jack,” “All Around the Town,” and “A Friend Is Dying”), which apparently made it to #27 in the US and #25 in Canada. A glance at the credits suggests this album is part of the great session-man soft-rock tradition of the 1970s — Jim Gordon’s on drums, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter plays steel guitar — and it’s exactly as pretty, as mellow, and as non-insightful as that suggests. It’s professionally made, with massed strings woozing behind sensitive guitar and piano figures, and both Cashman and West sing well (not that I can tell the difference between them), but none of the songs are particularly memorable. Perfect background music, but you’d never put it on a mixtape.
A Keeper? Sure, why not? If only to remind myself of how desperate record labels were to find another Simon & Garfunkel.
Vinyl Rip: American City Suite
Alan Parker, Alan Parker
File Between: Bobby Whitlock and Joe Walsh
Comments: That File Between may give you the wrong impression, and lead you to believe that this record is interesting. It isn’t. I mean, it’s perfectly fine — solid roots rock with a polished LA sheen — and Parker can both sing and play guitar. He just has no songs. There isn’t a single line in any of the eight songs with lyrics on the album that catches the ear or makes an impression; it’s all rock-by-numbers, and might as well have been the result of a Oulipo game of constructing new songs out of old verses, except without any of the creativity or sense of play. Even worse, there aren’t any hooks; this is as arrogant as workmanlike rock, ground out with a lot of passion but no ingenuity and very little care given to whether the listener’s having a good time. It assumes our attention, then neglects to repay it. Parker and his band work through a bunch of half-hearted genre riffs — bluesy stomps, country shuffles, cosmic meanderings, and one stretched-out Latin-ish instrumental that sounds like a third tier attempt to imitate Santana. Everything is terribly competent, and for the space of a verse or so you can fool yourself into thinking hey, this is pretty good. But it only stays on the same plateau, never lifts off into anything beyond mediocrity.
A Keeper? There are a couple of tracks that wouldn’t be too bad thrown in a mix with more fully-developed work, and like I say, Parker’s competent. Just too bad about the songs.
Vinyl Rip: Clear Light