Mind Made Up – A Certain Ratio (2008)

Mind Made Up album cover

Mind Made Up album cover

The fact is they were not alone. At about the same time Gang of Four came together in 1977, another band with a similar musical outlook,  A Certain Ratio (ACR) was being formed in nearby Manchester. With Jez Kerr’s leading vocals, the revolving 5 to 6 member band would create their own version of punk meets funk.

While that famous band from Leeds used funk as an accent around abrasive experimental sound textures, ACR was closer to pure R&B from the beginning or as close as dance rock with a punk infusion could be. The angst and grind of punk was there, but musically it was not restrained by any traditional British aesthetic. ACR was as much influenced by George Clinton as they were Brian Eno and it showed in how they were able to juggle rock and funk influences so deftly. Over time ACR would move ever closer to sounding like a blues/funk rock band  – very much the American mode or the Blues Brothers when they wanted to be.

Gang of Four itself would move on to a (more) mainstream sound, but A Certain Ratio would keep and refine their ‘jam band’ approach up to their last and possibly best recording Mind Made Up in 2008.
After having tasted the big time briefly with a contract on a major label, ACR proved to be too much for the nicely formatted rigors of big pop and would end up on a small label owned by a former member of New Order. The move suited their style as rhythm section could sometimes sound like Joy Division or New Order.

With Mind Made Up, ACR would use the soulful vocals of Denise Johnson in much the same way Gang of Four did with Brenda White on Hard.  Unlike Hard, the soulful accents on Mind Made Up sounded natural and not over produced. For 2008 many of Mind Made Up’s songs teetered between a classic timeless funk rock to near new wave pop retro. Songs like “Down Down Down” and “Way To Escape” could have been from the ’70s while “Rialto’s” pronounced thumping bass recall the distinct rhythm sections of early ’80s R&B bands.

It’s both tight and relaxed while informally funky. The free-flowing style is unlike many English bands who have a reputation for being stodgy and upright when trying to get down. I don’t know if it’s the right bass pedals or the damp weather, but It’s actually the kind of musicianship that would have made session players of the Barkays or Earth Wind and Fire proud.

Not all of the Mind Made Up is backward looking, although its most progressive songs still have an air of the early ’90s about them. “Teri” may be the albums most conventional modern rock song while “Starlight” is ACR at their late best with a blend of modern and vintage funk with alt rock overtones. Think of it as a funky version of Minus the Bear.

A Certain Ratio might remain in the shadows of the legacy of bands like Gang of Four, but it’s just a matter of time before they get their due (they are still together after a 2009 comeback). The club world knew of them for some time. Hopefully the rest of us will get more opportunities to hear England’s greatest punk/R&B/rock band.


If The Stars Could Speak, They Would Have Your Voice – Helen Stellar (2010)

If The Stars Could Speak, They Would Have Your Voice CD cover

If The Stars Could Speak, They Would Have Your Voice CD cover

A few years ago I saw the Gregg Araki teen film Kaboom. The sci-fi themed story about a gay college student and his best friend uncovering a sinister global plot was amusingly silly at best and a bit sloppy at worst. Fortunately, the film had a great soundtrack which is by the way not available unless you have the patience to make your own compilation.

Kaboom might have been a lousy film, but when Araki selected the soundtrack music he may have already realized that he was on to something. He’s been known to have a knack for matching music to a mood and attitude better than most directors. Be retro or just a new generation finding their muse with shoegazing music, Kaboom highlighted music as attitude/style much like the 4AD label did decades ago.

The bands featured on the roster of 20 some songs ranged from the widely known (Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeah) to the more obscure (The Horrors and Cut Copy). Of the newer bands on that list, Helen Stellar was my favorite. 2010 was a big year for the band having been featured on the Kaboom soundtrack (and in the film) while releasing their first LP If The Stars Could Speak, They Would Have Your Voice.

By 2010, the LA based band they had released a few EPs and had been together since 2001 Their sound could be best described as a mix of crisp Cocteau Twins styled guitars meets Smithereens styled rhythms. Although the fuzzyness of vintage 4AD was all over the Kaboom soundtrack, Helen Stellar stays closer to the Veldt on If The Stars Could Speak, They Would Have Your Voice.

Besides sounding like an homage to Simon Raymonde’s guitar style, the quartet led by Jim Evans features songs with a post modern sass. It’s the kind of sound meets post goth attitude that got the band the attention of film directors Cameron Crowe and Gregg Araki. Ironically enough the band has yet to sign a traditional record deal, instead spreading their music via soundtrack exposure on a small label that specialized in film music.

If The Stars Could Speak, They Would Have Your Voice teeters between a kind of lazy paced strumming of songs like “Show Me The Good” to more muscular rhythm sections from the Smithereens-like “The Disappearing Twin”. It’s a pleasant-sounding approach to a sound usually inspired by dark irony or goth. Just Orange and The Veldt excelled in this kind of twin guitar sound. Helen Stellar adds a bit of warmth.

Where The Veldt added soul to shoegauzing, Helen Stellar offers a kind of songwriting that when it’s not being sarcastic (“Show Me Good”) sounds like it could be interchangeable with Hootie and the Blowfish. Its strange, but had Evan’s voice been removed a songs like “Sensation Blvd”, it could work for Darius Rucker. The comparisons with Hootie or more specifically Darius Rucker end there as Evans has a limited vocal range that seems better suited for the cool low-key contemplative music he makes. A Rucker comparison might be a stretch, but you have to listen to hear what I mean.

Apparently bands like Anne, Just Orange, Ariel and Helen Stellar prove that old school shoeguazing via The Cocteau Twins, The Cure or The Jesus and Mary Chain is still very much in vogue with stylish, overly connected yet disaffected youth (The Jesus and Mary Chain was actually on the soundtrack for Kaboom). If this ever blossoms into a bigger more mainstream commercial movement, hopefully Helen Stellar will be on the leading edge of it with a major label contract in hand.


Strange Charm – Gary Numan (1986)

Strange Charm CD cover

Strange Charm CD cover

For some fans of Gary Numan like myself, the late ’80s was a test of our allegiance. While in college I was very particular about what CDs I would buy – especially when it came to expensive imports. My Gary Numan collection was mostly on LPs with the exception of the three disc best of collection Exhibition. New Numan releases on CD was still hard to come by and expensive in 1987. With that in mind I took the plunge and bought my first CD of new Numanoid material. Strange Charm was something of a transitional recording for Numan who seemed to be struggling to find his groove in a post “Cars” era. A quick sampling of the radio was enough to confirm that everyone else had caught up to and passed him commercially.

Numan started using a backing vocals and that most dreaded of ’80 trends, the saxophone solo. Despite the sometimes soulful style of his evolving backup singers, the end result still sounded cold and mechanical – like music made for the Knight Rider TV show.

By 1985 those things were already cliché in BritPop anyway. For Numan this mainstream convention was followed by experiments with new technology and new collaborations with Bill Sharpe. With Sharpe, Numan was developing the beginnings of a harsh industrial sound that would find focus and fully mature nearly a decade later.

With Sharpe, Numan also had his first near hit in America after “Cars” with “Change Your Mind”. The single scored on the dance charts, but featured a video that made a few rounds on MTV. With Strange Charm, Numan would work with Sharpe on two tracks, the Depeche Mode like “New Things from London Town” and “My Breathing”. Both songs showed a new type of beat structure for Numan, one that was aggressive in its dancability while maintaining the cold studio savvy sound. Although new territory for Numan, he was in some ways playing catch up to the first graduate class of new romantics who had become new wave pop stars (I’m looking at you Depeche Mode).

Strange Charm was clearly a refinement of The Fury. They could actually be bookends, because after Strange Charm Numan had evolved his music again. New synth and digital effects played alongside rock style guitars on Strange Charm. At its worse It managed to be busy like “The Need”, a song that seemed to have everything thrown into its mix. At its best Numan allowed himself to slow down to create a sense of drama and ambiance on piano based songs like “This is Love”.

Beautiful is not usually a term to describe Numan’s music, but “This is Love” comes close. The rest of Strange Charm is not without its merits. Much of what I love about Numan’s music is still there; the fret less bass, catchy synth rifs and songs that paint vivid pictures in the mind.

The experimentation of Strange Charm would spin out of control in a directionless spiral (or so it seem that way) for the next few releases. Numan even did an over produced cover of Prince’s “1999” before reinventing himself in the ’90s as a pupil of Trent Reznor (or was that the other way around). Strange Charm is not likely to be on a casual Numan fans list of favorite albums, but its not without special merit or charm to borrow a bit from its namesake.


Carl Carlton – Carl Carlton (1983)

Carl Carlton album cover

Carl Carlton album cover

If you remember Carl Carlton at all you might know him from his big hit “She’s a Bad Mamma Jamma”. That song from his fourth album Carl Carlton or Sexy Lady (in some overseas markets) seemed to have come from out of nowhere. Carlton actually had been recording since the mid ’60s usually under the name Little Carl Carlton in Detroit. Little Carl was something a young Stevie Wonder disciple.

Carlton’s music had come a long way thanks mostly to producer Leon Heywood. Heywood would get him a major record contract and essentially free him from the musical little leagues. Over time Carlton’s voice and musical style evolved into slick funk/R&B in the mode of Jermaine Jackson.

He apparently was proud of his evolution enough to poise shirtless on the cover as to suggest that he was no longer “Little Carl Carlton”. The boyish smile big afro and buff torso could have been interpreted as a sex album in the vein of Prince or Rick James, but this was fun light hearted R&B.

Carlton actually had a small string of light hearted hits through the ’70s, but it would be the 1981 release of Carl Carlton that would put him on the radio again. Leon Heywood would help hone a bouncy rhythm driven sound that was rooted very much in the late ’70s but free of disco impulses (for the most part). Much of it sounded familiar in that it mirrored the better R&B of the era like EWF, Shalamar or The Brother’s Johnson.

A lot of people never got beyond the memory of “Bad Mamma Jamma”, but the album actually has more than a few great songs. The varied collection ranged from the all out dance of “Sexy Lady” and “I’ve Got that Boogie Fever” to the quiet storm of “This Feeling’s Rated X-Tra”.

This album was recorded during a transitional period when electronics were slowly replacing musicians. As this happened the teams of horn players from old school soul and R&B had faded away first. Carlton Carlton retained the real horn sections and had its share of star musicians in the background. They included George Duke and James Ingram with Ingram doing a little writing.

Despite hits on both sides of the Atlantic, Carlton’s 15 minutes were up by the time he released his follow up The Bad C.C a year later. He might have appeared as just another one hit R&B artist, but Carl Carlton was proof that his talent was bigger than his chart success. In some ways Carlton’s short stab at popularity opened the door long enough for others who emulated his vaguely Jackson-like style follow like Rockwell a few years later.


Airtight’s Revenge – Bilal (2010)

Airtight's Revenge CD cover

Airtight’s Revenge CD cover

If you are familiar with the neo-soul/funk experimentalist Bilal Sayeed Oliver or just Bilal, you know that he is one of the best singer-songwriters in R&B today. Bilal came out strong with his debut 1st Born Second in 2001 and creatively it’s been up hill from there. Despite the enormous critical appeal and being one of the most sought after producers/collaborators in the business, Bilal’s own music has never achieved the commercial media saturation of singer/dancer types like Chris Brown or Beyonce. Radio be it your local FM or stream could certainly use more of his kind of genius.

Nothing against those dancer types. Bilal has always presented a sophisticated approach to R&B that might limit his audience within the confines of teen focused traditional soul. That musical approach alone would put artist like Bilal at odds with today’s music market. I imagine the typical record company exc might assume the same and go further with the belief that the masses are too ignorant with limited musical awareness to appreciating anything too far beyond what the beaten path (rap or syncro-dancepop) offers.

Being on the high end of that thinking has put Bilal in the middle of some unfortunate struggles with his record company in the past. It may also have contributed to a subtle streak of bitterness that’s discernible in some of his Airtight’s Revenge. Even the album’s name suggests that the circumstances surrounding his last album would not happen this time.

That angst comes across as subtle protest. His varied influences and often surreal approach to writing has given just about everything he touches a unique edge. After a period of nearly a decade with no new album after the aborted release of Love For Sale, Bilal released his second (official) album called Airtight’s Revenge in 2010.

Easily his most challenging project to date Airtight’s Revenge was a darker album about everyday life. Issues of love, commercialism and insecurities mix with a psychedelic/sci-fi streak. Songs like “Robots” and “Cake and Eat it Too” show a new dimension of dark funk that made earlier work from the 1st Born Second days sound conventional.

Bilal never limited himself to just the neo-soul genre. For instance, he uses surprising elements that are reminiscent of alt rock artist like Kate Bush. The closing verses of “Who Are You” are phrased as if they could have come from “Running Up That Hill” or “Cloudbusting” from The Hounds of Love.

Like visually inclined artist Kate Bush, Bilal paints a complex mostly dark picture of the world through vivid songwriting. In Bilal case he adds subverted humor (“The Dollar”) with sarcasm. It’s not all downers. Bilal’s skill as a songwriter shines bright when hes addressing interpersonal issues in a surprisingly uplifting way. The touching “Little One”, a song about his son and “Think it Over” are two that stand out. The albums sonic masterpiece however is “Levels”, a song that starts out as a jazz instrumental and builds up a low-key inward-looking intensity as a psychedelic soul composition.

I could go on and on about this album. It was one of my most anticipated and favorite albums of that year. Every one of the 11 songs on the album could have been a single. Despite having such a deep bench, only one single “Think it Over”was released. While the song helped Airtight’s Revenge reach #21 on the R&B/Hip Hop chart, it was pretty much ignored outside the grown up soul and indie circles that are most familiar with Bilal’s work.

That’s a shame too because Airtight Revenge was easily one of the best albums of any genre in 2010. Very few modern musicians can still paint vivid images in your mind with just their songwriting (most need videos with the before mentioned syncro-dance routines). Oddly, Bilal story based songwriting is a trait is usually associate with vintage folk or country music.

Ironically, with his profile ever rising as a hit maker for others, Bilal has yet to land a major record label  that’s able/willing to promote  and distribute his work in the manner it deserves (even in a digital era). Unfortunately, as we get older, studies have shown that we buy less music. If that’s true, then talented maturing artist like Bilal have the potential of being left behind in a world where the charts are governed by people who aren’t even old enough to drive. Somehow I don’t think that will be Bilal’s fate.


Girl Talk – The Girls (1984)

Girl Talk album cover

Girl Talk album cover

Prince had his vixen. Plenty of them. They were often alternate channels for him to explore other musical ideals. Their exploits are well documented on the charts and even in film. All this success with musical puppets must have prompted others to give it a try. Rick James had success with The Mary Jane Girls. Even Jessie Johnson channeled his creativity through Ta Mara and the Seen.

Princes closest musical counterpart might have been Andre Cymone. Inspired by the runaway success of Vanity 6, Cymone figured he give the girl group a try. After all, it worked for Morris day in Purple Rain. During the height of Cymone’s reign on the charts he created his version of the musical alter ego in the form of The Girls. Their one and only album Girl Talk was similar to the Vanity6/Apollonia 6  model that had worked so well for Prince. The real difference being that The Girls lacked any whimsical humor and never strayed too far from the R&B funk of Cymone’s music.

Being less adventurous than Apollonia 6  might have suggested that The Girls were more about looks, but they were not the exotic types that Prince might have hand-picked. Germain Brooks, Shelia Rankin and Doris Ann Rhodes were just teenagers when Cymone gathered them together to front his new project. Looking like the naughty girls next door may have been the source of their charm.

Musically The Girls sounded like Cymone’s band with female vocals. There’s good reason for that because Cymone in Prince-like fashion played nearly all the instruments in the recording with the exception of bits on various songs performed by members of his backing band.

On the surface The Girls offered little beyond the novelty of hearing yet another Prince-like band with female vocals. Closer inspection reveals some surprises in the form of new wave and funk reminiscent of The Time. One track “Don’t Waste My Time” could have been an early Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis song with its SOS Band-like chorus. “Girl Talk” was not unlike the funky jam sessions from the Times first two albums.

Where The Girls really shine was the sultry “Someone Shoulda Told Me”. That song alone made the album worth getting (if you could have found it). If there was any doubt that any of the Girls could sing, Germain Brooks proved them wrong with her soaring conclusion. Other tracks like “Nu Boy” and “My Man” stay consistent with Minneapolis funk by exploring new wave pop.

In all The Girls hardly made a dent in the electrofunk sweepstakes of the early ’80s. After proving itself to be a flow, The Girls were dropped by their record company and disbanded in 1985. By then Cymone had moved on with the Prince written hit “The Dance Electric”.


Street Called Desire – Rene & Angela (1985)

Street Called Desire album cover

Street Called Desire album cover

1985 was a great year for R&B. The Prince machine was in full gear, Luther Vandross and Freddie Jackson were igniting Quiet Storm movement while Sade and the debut of Whitney Houston brought a touch of jazz and polish to pop. Somewhere in this mix of genre expanding abyss was Rene & Angela.

The LA based duo had become sought after producers/songwriters for the likes of Rufus and Chaka Kahn and Janet Jackson, but it would be their second and final album Street Called Desire that would be one of 1985’s best R&B albums.

As an example of the many independent style movements, the cleverly named pun  Street Called Desire had no particular signature beyond a collection of best practices in R&B production. The duo’s passion might have been their biggest trademark. Vague similarity to Mutume on the hit “I’ll Be Good” was as close to a recognizable style that the duo would come.

The mixing of funk, soul and quiet storm styles would highlight the wonderful synergy between both singers. Rene, had earned a reputation as a talented singer and musician who played for The Brothers Johnson and sang backup for artist as diverse as Dolly Parton. His stamp blended in seamlessly and was never in competition with the powerful vocals of Angela Winbush.

This was grown up music with authentic emotion and passion. It made for some of 1985’s most memorable R&B. The album reads like a mini greatest hits as four singles (most scoring in the smaller single digits of the R&B charts) made Rene & Angela a force to be reckoned with. This was pure R&B before rap and hip hop styles would command cameos towards the middle and ends of songs.

“Save Your Love”, the albums first single went to #1 on the R&B chart as did the beautiful “Your Smile”. Even when singles from Street Called Desire weren’t reaching #1, they were coming close with “You Don’t have to Cry at #2 and the rousing “I’ll Be Good” landing at #4 on the R&B charts.

Interestingly, the song to score the lowest on the R&B chart was the only one to register on the more mainstream pop chart at #47. During this time so-called black music was still an urban radio treasure. The best of it did not always leak out to the mainstream and sadly the business models of the day might have prevented this album from breaking out of the ghetto no fly zone of radio formatting.

BET and to some extent VH-1 would help to change that. Unfortunately before all their good work could survive the video era, the same heated passions that fueled their music broke the duo apart.

Angela Winbush went on to considerable success as a solo artist while Rene Moore became a noted producer. 1985 might be remembered as the year after Purple Rain or the debut of a certain former fashion model, but for me there was little like the pure R&B joy of Street Called Desire.

 


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