Word Up! – Cameo (1986)

Word Up! album cover

Word Up! album cover

I’ve always though the ’80s was the golden age for funk. While the horn laced funk of the ’70s had its day, artist like James Brown and Earth Wind and Fire were having difficulty translating their success to the new electronic age. One of the few funk acts from the age of the Pinto to really thrive was Cameo.

Cameo was led by its charismatic founder Larry Blackman. By the mid ’80s he had managed to mix new wave, funk and emerging hip hop elements into a wildly popular formula. The height of this success came with Word Up, the band’s 12th album in 9 years. From about the time of Alligator Woman (1982), Cameo had made the gradual transition from horn dominated funk to synths and drum machines. It’s fortunes rose with every release afterwards, while maintaining distinction from other funk acts.
Word Up! forged its own path that was a clear departure from George Clinton, Prince or Rick James. In doing so Cameo was able to distinguish itself from a dozen or so funk bands who with varying success, dominated the R&B charts and reaching as high as #8 on the Billboard Album chart.

The album’s title song became a huge hit. It was inspired in part by rap terminology and in turn became a popular catch phrase in the hip hop community. By incorporating synths and zany sound samples (sometimes from Saturday morning cartoons), Cameo created a trademark zaniyness that could only be attributed to them like on “Back and Forth”.

Other songs like “Candy” were boosted by an innovative music video featuring a ridiculous red cod piece Blackman wore that would later become his signature look. The song’s sparse up and down scaling melody (punctuated by rock guitar) was playful and infectious. Playful would describe the overall tone of Word Up!. The album’s only ballad “Dont Be Lonely” is about the only place where they slow down to the point of almost sounding like a conventional R&B band.

Speaking of conventional, the only real weak spot could be the rap in “She’s Mine”, but given the silly approach to the subject matter, it somehow seemed fitting. Even with the cartoonish rap, Word Up! was fresh and cutting edge sounding in 1986 and much of it still holds up well today.

Word Up! marked the middle of a particularly productive (and profitable) period for Cameo. Like Ronald Isley would a decade later, Cameo was able to keep pace with the rapid pace of the changing music scene while keeping old fans who loved them during their “Rigor Mortis” and “I Just Want to Be” days.

As all peaks go, dives inevitably occur. With Cameo it would take a few releases, but by the early ’90s they had resorted to releasing greatest hits albums every other year. With a slightly altered line up featuring Larry Blackman, Tomi Jenkins from the ’80s line-up, Cameo released its last album Sexy Sweet Thing in 2000.


Guy – Guy (1988)

Guy album cover

Guy album cover


Yesterday’s entry Blackgirls may have come about as a counter response to one of the biggest R&B styles of the ’90s. That style New Jack Swing along with Grunge are what a lot of people remember about ’90s music. Both styles re-invigorated their respective music genre. Thanks to the small shelf life of musical styles in R&B, New Jack Swing’s initial effect on was contained in a small window.
The style was first introduced with the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced Control for Janet Jackson.

While the nameless style was young it would not have a true face and definitive sound until after Teddy Riley met a bunch of like-minded friends in a clothing store. The result of that meeting was the formation of Guy.

While Janet Jackson’s Control was a huge crossover hit, the work of Teddy Riley with Guy and later Blackstreet would be the style refined for the R&B community. With no pressures of crossover appeal, Guy would dominate R&B if only for a few years. The album that started it all was the groups self titled debut.

By the time the term New Jack Swing  (coined by a Village Voice music writer in 1988) gained traction, there was already a slew of sound alike acts who’s biggest appeal was their looks and dance moves. The disposable nature of R&B meant that these bands would come and go in an attempt to cash in on the latest thing.

Guy was different. Engineered by Tony Bennett’s son Dave, Guy sounds somewhat dense if not busy. Where most NJS bands sounded cheesy with simple rhythms built around a few keyboards, Guy had mixes of drum machine and synth funk combined with choice samples from James Brown, George Clinton. Much of the syncopation and choppiness associated with funk was washed over in favor of sweeping grooves, but enough trace elements of funk existed to make Guy one of 1988’s best R&B/dance albums.

The dense mix gave the music a kind of sophistication and substance much of the genre was lacking. The vocal style of the Hall brothers (Aaron and Damion)and Riley borrowed the harmonies and intensity of the black church while mixing street metaphors from rap.

In the spirit of hip hop, Teddy Riley and crew were not at all modest. Bostorous claims and over confidence ruled the day and like M.C. Hammer, they were able to deliver on most of the hoopla.
“Round and Round” was the first of five singles (all to 30 R&B) that ranged from simple dance funk to “Spend the Night”, one of the few slow jams on Guy. With 5 weeks at #1 on the Billboard R&B chart, Guy’s effect would outlive the album’s chart life.

The next release The Future, would do even better and ever so slightly move Guy to the mainstream. Of course by the time that happened Guy had run its corse, Riley had moved on to Blackstreet. After that, he would find his niche producing for everyone from Micheal Jackson to Jane Child.


Treat U Right – Blackgirl (1994)

Treat U Right album cover

Treat U Right album cover

In the mid ’90s R&B was going through some big changes. The New Jack Swing movement had matured and a growing number of girl groups were cashing in on the success of SWV. One of those new girl acts was Blackgirl. While Pam Copeland, Rochelle Stuart and Nycolia Turman may have sounded like SWV on the surface, they had their distinct own look and sound. The group made of point of having short-cropped hair as if it had some musical virtue. They went as far as to portray themselves as gangsters on their debut album Treat U Right. By no means were they gangsters in that rap kind of way, but as throwbacks to the 1920s and ’30s, complete with baggy men’s suites (just like Madonna in the video for Express Yourself).

Aside from the look Blackgirl, was slightly out of step with the rest of R&B, which was increasingly becoming more hip-hop influenced. A talented production team including Teddy Reilly gave the trio a retro soul sound rooted in the ’70s like on the song “Ooh Yeah” and the Curtis Mayfield cover “Let’s Do It Again”. Like many R&B albums of the day, Treat U Right worked better as a collection of singles, despite its vaguely retro theme.

New Jack Swing was still the go to style of the day and Treat U Right had its share of concessions to the moment like “90’s Girl”, with its Cheryl Lynn “Encore” sample. Hits like “Zrazy” with its fluid synthetized bass was boosted by its SWV-like sound, but the album featured other great songs that emphasized the groups ability to harmonize. Blackgirl toured with R. Kelly and made the rounds on Soul Train, bt never really took off. In reality their style of R&B was a few years too early.

As with many projects that seemed created as a response to something popular, Blackgirl never stayed together long enough to fulfill their promise. They disbanded in 1996 with at least one of the former members going into gospel music, a style of music hinted to on the beautiful but all too short “Home”.


Barry White’s Greatest Hits – Barry White (1975)

Greatest Hits album cover

Greatest Hits album cover

I saw the 1970s from the perspective of a child. Not old enough to actively participate in any adult trends, observation was my only recourse as the child of a church deacon.

One of the ’70s biggest trends was one that I never really saw coming, mostly because my music listening was limited to backwards leaning AM radio. I did however watch TV and noticed that symphonic sound was oddly meshing with soul music. The person behinf this trend would be one of the era’s biggest stars and an icon for lovers everywhere.

Barry White was always this big imposing negro with the silky baritone voice, a kind of Frank Sinatra for the ghetto. After all White was a former gangster and rose up the ranks to become what many call the creator of disco.

When is first greatest hits album was originally released on vinyl in 1975, it became a smash hit. It neatly showcased his best work and parallel the evolution of the disco sound he help originate. That sound was marked by the blending of classical elements with traditional soul and R&B.

In fact White created the Love Unlimited Orchestra to spearhead the cross pollination of the orchestra and soul. The result was lush arrangements framing his deep (some say sexy) voice. Many of his hits when played back to back on a compilation album sounded similar, but there was no denying that it was a unique sound.

Songs like “Cant get Enough of Your Love, Babe” and “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” may have had long titles, but their legacy was much longer. While White himself was influenced by many of his still active contemporaries like James Cleveland, Ray Charles and Elvis, he would in turn inspire a vast generation of quiet storm and soul artists who ranged from R Kelly to Lisa Stansfield.

When Barry White’s Greatest Hits was issued on CD in the late ’80s, it was one of the first albums from his catalog to be issued. This was in a time before people were able to make their own CD compilations at home. The limitations of the time and my fond memories of White’s music lead to my buying the CD.

Despite his hits scattered over a relatively long period of time, no single album from White seemed all that enjoyable from start to finish, as if one or two hits would be all the record company was willing to develop. For that reason the first Greatest Hits collection is the best. The second one released towards the end of the ’70s is not as strong a collection as White’s highly distinctive sound was becoming dated.


Doppelganger – Curve (1992)

Doppelganger album cover

Doppelganger album cover

Somewhere between the ethereal drama of Vast and the pounding rhythms of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers was Curve. Curve came about during the height of the grunge’s commercial period, a time in the early ’90s when many bands were adopting elements of the then popular sound.

Curve on the other hand took a different approach. The London-based quartet led by Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia took some of its inspiration from My Bloody Valentine. For their strong debut Doppelganger, Halliday did the singing while Garcia provided the beats and played most of the instruments.  Doppelganger was the band’s first full length album, with three EP before in which to sharpen its sound. Produced by the band and Flood, the songs were written in a collaboration between Halliday and Garcia.  Their debut into the big time made a strong statement from its mildly disturbing cover art to the in-your-face angst of the songs.

A distinctive wall of noise guitar sound usually associated with some 4AD acts, early Cure and Echo & the Bunnymen albums was the backdrop for powerful beat centric and rhythm heavy songs. The approach was not unlike The Red Hot Chili Peppers with its heavy beats, but had some of the delicateness of more ethereal music. The formula was commercially successful as “Fait Accompli”  became an Modern Rock radio staple and dance hit. Other songs like “Horror Head” became a MTV favorite, revealing a band that looked both goth and glamorous.

Halliday’s vocals were at times embedded in the mix  like just another instrument. The songs were densely layered with percussion, drums and bass making for a heavy muscular sound. Unlike other bands that employed the “wall of sound” technique, the instruments were clearly delineated on all but the most low-fi of playback devices.

While Doppelganger was styled after everything from alt rock to shoegazing, it featured a strong rhythmic vibe. most of the songs were dance ready with an apocalyptic drone about them. In the few moments when the band let up for a ballad, the results were often surprisingly pleasant as in the sparse “Sandpit”.

Doppelganger was influential in the development of alternative rock with a dance edge. Curve would also inspire later bands like Vast who took the same basic formula and added a bit more drama and mysticism. Despite their long-lasting influence on the development of alternative dance music in the ’90s, the band’s fortunes dried up by the end of the middle of the decade after the release of Cuckoo in 1993. After a hiatus the band reformed in 1996 and has had a few releases since then.

 


Engine – American Music Club (1985)

Engine album cover

Engine album cover

One of the last great musical discoveries of my college era was The American Music Club. One day I heard them being played from the basement of my apartment building. While following the sound, I found my friend sorting stuff with Engine playing in the background.

From that day on, The American Music Club became one of my favorites, if not my favorite band. Its leader Mark Eitzel, who has released a few solo albums on his own is (was) the man behind the San Francisco based band.

On Engine, their second album, a rough country western meets punk style may have been due to individual influences, but the often slow and introspective lyrics from Mark Eitzel prompted a new musical definition called slowcore (sometimes sadcore).

On Engine, Eitzel develops his witty method of songwriting that mixes humor and sadness in an early formula that would eventually become the band’s hallmark. Three of the band’s early core members were present: Mark Eitzel, Vudi and Dan Pearson. They with others provided a mostly indie rock meets country western sound. The occasional steel strings lent some country flavor, but the songs are stark and modern by virtue of Eitzel’s grounded yet poetic lyrics.

Some of the albums more upbeat highlights like “Outside This Bar” and “Clouds” exemplify the straight forward rock with punk undertones from the band’s debut. It would be the slower songs like “Nightwatchman”, “Mom’s TV” and “Asleep” that pointed to the band’s future reputation as kings of slowcore indie rock. Humor too was becoming a staple of the band’s work, specifically in Eitzel’s writing. Although not always as out right goofy as in “The Art of Love”.

AMC’s first three domestic releases, The Restless Stranger, Engine and California all feature an evolving degree of polish on the way to the lush sound of Mercury, the band’s major label debut. Eitzel’s songwriting also evolved,but even in early material it was clear that he was a step above the average rock song architect. It would easily put him in the same category as Morrissey, Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush in that regard. Rolling Stone magazine thought so too and would call Eitzel, the greatest songwriter of the year in 1988.

“Outside This Bar” is one of the band’s concert favorites as are a few others from Engine. It’s where Eitzel refines his punk and new wave influences to the point of creating a unique style of his own quite literally starting the slowcore (or sadcore) genre. Whatever you might want to call it, it’s a sound with few imitators today and holds up well over time. That may be one of the reasons I keep going back to this album.

 


Diamond – Spandal Ballet (1982)

Diamond album cover

Diamond album cover

Spandal Ballet is known in America for the hit ‘True” from their third album of the same name. By the mid 1980s, the band had become a soft middle of the road (MOR) act with the style of Duran Duran and the sound of a watered down Human League. It was a sad de-evolution from True, the band’s best and most successful album.

The roughness of their debut mixed new romantic drudgery with slap bass funk in much the same way Heaven 17 did, except not as ssuccessful Their second album is where the band refined their R&B ambitions while adding a layer of transitional new wave style.
Diamond even featured the horn section from Beggar & Co., a British R&B act. Horn sections in English pop usually indicate the most polished kind of import ready pop., yet Diamond has an intriguing unresolved sound about it.

Songs like “Chant No. 1″ became a hit with its danceable (yet generic) beat.The popularity of Heaven 17 might have played a role in its success in the U.K. as it could have been one of their outtakes or B-sides. The song by numbers routine continued with the funky “Paint Me Down”. Despite being one of the more funky tracks on Diamond, they were oddly lifeless. “Coffee Club” with its bright horn section is perhaps the albums most lively dance track.

Diamond seemed to be at its best when it was somewhere between the band’s future MOR and pop sound. “She Loved Like Diamond” hinted to the polish of future releases. Where that formula was uses, Diamond seemed quite polished.Spandal Ballet was late in making the transition to synth pop from new romanticism. The songs on Diamond show an interesting evolution, but the appeal of this album to me was in its odd rough edges.

I bought this album on a hunch in the late ’80s after having rediscovering my old Columbia House copy of True. In retrospect Diamond was Spandal Ballet at their second best. There’s no shame in that accolade, especially when the curve dropped off so sharply after True.


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