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Soul Serenade: The Commodores, “Brick House”

The late 1970s were a good time indeed for funk. Given the fact that disco and punk were both ascendent in those days, it’s remarkable that funk could have gained a toehold, but that’s exactly what happened. Last week I wrote about the 1978 Parliament hit “Flash Light,” and this week I’m going to remain in that era and feature a 1977 smash by the Commodores called “Brick House.

In 1968 there were two groups, Mystics, and the Jays, that were made up of students at Tuskegee Institute. Lionel Richie was a Mystic, a group that leaned a little more toward jazz, as were Thomas McClary, and William King. The Jays membership included Andre Callahan, Michael Gilbert, and Milan Williams. Those six got together and chose the name Commodores at random from a dictionary.

“We lucked out, we almost became the Commodes,” William King told People Magazine with a laugh.

At the start, they had a singer named James Ingram (no, not that one) and played frat parties and local clubs. Ingram was a little older than the other guys, and when he was sent to Vietnam, the Commodores replaced him with William ‘Clyde’ Orange, who played drums. The new singer split the lead vocals with Richie and wrote or co-wrote a lot of the Commodores’ hits.

It was a gig opening for the Jackson 5 that got the Commodores noticed, and signed to Motown in 1972. Their first hit for the label was “Machine Gun” in 1974. The single reached #22 on the Pop chart and was Top 10 R&B. “Slippery When Wet” produced a second hit for the band the following year, getting to the top of the R&B chart, and crossing over to #19 on the Pop chart. Top 10 hits like “Just to be Close to You” (1976), and “Easy” (1977) followed.

The songwriting on “Brick House” is credited to Lionel Richie, Milan Williams, Walter Orange, Ronald La Pread, Thomas McClary, William King, and Shirley Hanna-King was an uncredited writer. As the story goes, there were equipment problems in the recording studio so the Commodores took a break. Bass player Ronald LaPread began playing a riff, and soon the rest of the band joined in. Before long, they had a track.

Producer James Carmichael liked what he heard, but knew that there was still work to do to make it a song. William King took the tapes home, and he was asleep when his wife, Shirley Hanna-King came up with the “brick house” lyrics for the riff. William King told the band that he had written the lyrics, and it was decided that Orange would be the right singer for the funky groove, instead of Richie, who was singing a lot of the lead vocals at that point. It took years for the band to learn of Hanna-King’s contribution, and although she remains uncredited, the band does acknowledge her part in the creation of the hit.

The Commodores

“Brick House” was released in August 1977. The single rose to #5 on the Pop chart, and #4 R&B. The Commodores still had bigger hits in their future.

“Three Times a Lady” was their biggest hit. The Richie-sung ballad was released in 1978 and became a #1 smash on the Pop and R&B charts. The following year “Sail On” hit the Top 10 on both charts, and that same year “Still” again rose to the top of both charts. In 1981 the band had two more Top 10 hits with “Oh No,” and “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

The success was more than enough to push Richie out of the nest in 1982 and on to a huge solo career. He was replaced by Skylar Jett. McClary left the following year, LaPread in 1986. Sheldon Reynolds (who joined in 1983) left to play with Earth, Wind & Fire the next year, and original member Milan Williams left in 1989, apparently because he would not play in South Africa.

Despite all the changes, the Commodores were not yet done. They did, however, become less funky, opting for a more easygoing sound. J.D. Nicholas, formerly of Heatwave, came aboard in 1984 and shared vocal duties with Orange. They hadn’t had a hit for awhile when “Nightshift,” with Orange singing lead, shot up to the #1 spot on the R&B chart, and #3 on the Pop chart. The song was a lovely tribute to two icons who had died the previous year, Jackie Wilson, and Marvin Gaye. “Nightshift” won the Commodores their first Grammy in 1985.

That hit marked the end of the Commodores stint with Motown Records. In 1990, they formed their own label, Commodores Records, and re-recorded their biggest hits for a two-volume compilation. There was also a live album and DVD, and a Christmas album. These days the Commodores are still out there, and Orange, King, and Nicholas are still part of the group, along with a five-piece band.

Will Jay Takes on Hollywood Whitewashing in New Video for “Leading Man”

In 2016, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign drew attention to whitewashing in Hollywood, although the practice has been going on long before hashtags were even invented. For generations, roles of people of color have been occupied by white actors; historically, they were also often accompanied by offensive makeup. Sadly, it still happens today, as Will Jay explores in his new song, “Leading Man.”

With a voice of a Michael Buble-meets-Justin Timberlake, it’s no surprise that Jay was part of boy band IM5 and formerly competed on The Voice in China. But what really sets him apart is his goal of creating truly meaningful music. “I want to write the soundtrack for people’s lives,” he told the Huffington Post, “whether it’s a song that reminds them of a great time in their life or a song that simply gives them a good cry.”

In his video for “Leading Man,” Jay literally interprets the song’s lyrics, portraying an Asian actor auditioning for a kung-fu movie. A blowhard director writes him off despite his obvious talent and chooses a typical blond-hair, blue-eyed candidate instead. Jay sings, “It’s just more of the same / so let me take his place / That should be me / and you know why.”

Later, after donning a blond wig and caking his face in white makeup, Jay re-auditions and… well, you can guess what happens.

It’s a powerful, raw statement from someone who’s experienced this type of unjust discrimination firsthand. It’s also an important societal touchstone that feels oh-so contemporary and important for this moment in history. Hollywood, take note.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: PAUL WELLER, “A Kind Revolution”

It’s not enough that Paul Weller recently released his first soundtrack/score for the movie “Jawbone”; he now offers us his latest studio creation, A Kind Revolution.  After the breathtaking one-two punch of his last two dynamic and – for him – groundbreaking albums, Sonik Kicks and Saturns Pattern, you’d think he’d revert into a more “safe” musical terrain…  but he doesn’t.  And that’s one of the things you absolutely have to love and admire about Paul Weller – his tenacity, drive and desire to keep pushing forward musically – to go where he hasn’t before or to make those familiar places re-bloom with added color.  That’s exactly what he does here.

“Long Long Road” is a total stunner, with its pure soul feel – piano, tasteful guitars, Hammond B3, strings and one of Weller’s finest vocal performances in his storied career – you cannot help but be touched by the overwhelming beauty of this track on all levels; the sound and delivery is incredible – this is about as “spiritual” as I’ve ever heard him, with a piece on par with something like “Let It Be”; “Woo Se Mama” is a get-down, modern groove that just shouts “exuberance” and joy and is a perfect opener; “She Moves With The Fayre” is a wonderfully disjointed funk workout, which shows Weller in an experimental mood (and good for him); “New York” has a truly “New York”-vibe about it; Latin flavors, atmospheric, a stridently funky bass line and just right and “Nova” is (for me) the shocker – it has a 1980/81 “new wave” feel with its synth bleeps – I hate to say it, but it has shades of The Cars!  But that’s what makes it great – venturing into previously uncharted waters.

So am I surprised that Weller has done it again?  No, not really.  Go back to 2010’s Wake Up The Nation.  It was as if he was completely musically reinvigorated with that incredible work.  He’s been on a roll ever since.  And God knows, if that doesn’t give you musical comfort, nothing will.  It certainly does my soul good.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

A Kind Revolution is currently available

www.paulweller.com

The “Magic” Disappearing Act: Bruce Springsteen And The Short Legacy Tail

August of this year will mark the tenth anniversary of the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Magic album. I will presume early on that there won’t be much hoopla expended on the occasion. That’s a shame. While far from perfect, and certainly far from the grand statements of his youth, Magic is a sturdy plate of comfort food with an acidic bite if you’re paying attention. The songs, in the majority, concern themselves with the aftermath, the reckoning, the day after YOLO.

I’d never position myself as a Springsteen superfan. I appreciate his work and his work ethic. I have great respect for anyone who either consciously or reflexively moves from a big piece of commercial rock and roll to an intimate, stripped-down, almost lo-fi statement piece. Yet I’ve never been to one of his shows and have only a select number of his albums, likely not the ones you expect.

Part of this is sheer obstinance. I live in Central New Jersey, the belly-button of Springsteen Country, and all my life I’ve been expected to hold some strange reverence to the guy as if I knew him. (Would I turn down an opportunity to interview him? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous, Cousin Larry.) Honestly, I think some of his best work began with The Rising, which was both crying towel and pep talk post-September 11. I think Devils & Dust is highly underrated, and for most of the same reasons why people seem to have rejected it. And although it predates The Rising, you have to admit that The Ghost Of Tom Joad is pretty brave.

Magic (2007) was the first album of new music with the E. Street Band since The Rising (2002). It was also a period of unity for the band before drastic changes occurred, beyond anyone’s control — the deaths of Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. There was some excitement surrounding the first single, “Radio Nowhere.”  According to Wikipedia, the album debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, becoming Springsteen’s eighth #1 album in the U.S. and selling about 335,000 copies in its first week. After falling to number two for one week, the album rose again to number one, selling about 77,000 copies that week. To put that into context, the power of music sales was already diminished and what constituted a high-selling album had already changed drastically, but Magic did quite well for itself. That it dipped down in sales but then resurfaced is alone a feat. Most often, once sales trend down, they stay down. That’s not a recent phenomenon — that’s a standard expectation.

But where is Magic now?

By which, I mean, where does it stand in the mix of Springsteen’s legacy of releases? The answer is hard to pin down. It certainly isn’t the fault of Sony/Columbia, his longtime label or Legacy, the label’s back catalog wing. Their investment is as steadfast as it ever was.

You can’t really apply the current pop radio data to this question. While Springsteen was the embodiment of a meat ‘n potatoes ethic of pop for a certain era, modern pop is defined by hip hop and electronica presently. This is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Yet on rock radio, and specifically classic rock radio which should be embracing this stuff for dear life and relevance, not so much. A couple of months ago, Popdose writer Ted Asregadoo noted the pitiful state of today’s rock radio, a classification so tired and worn that a blood transfusion would not help. He looked at the playlists of one in his region of California, and not one track on the list defied the stereotype. If you liked it in ’68, ’78, or maybe ’88, it was probably there. Anything after that is anyone’s guess.

But, you might ask, surely that’s different in the “belly-button of Springsteen Country, right?” You’d think that, but no. We do have local radio stations out here, and they do infuriatingly bow deep before the altars of Springsteen and Bon Jovi. But even though these should have a vested interest in flogging the entire venerated catalog, they too fixate on a tiny subset that ends abruptly with Tunnel Of Love’s “Brilliant Disguise.” Occasionally they’ll break up the mix with “Human Touch” or even “Streets of Philadelphia,” if they’re feeling magnanimous and feisty.

That very fixation has caused other artists to give up on making new music at all. Why add to diminished returns, many argue. Just take the handful of songs everyone likes and tour the world until you die. From an artistic standpoint, that’s a show of bitter defeat. From a business standpoint, it only makes sense. If you have reliable assets, wring them out for everything they’re worth.

What I find particularly galling, being in this state, is that this very narrow band of what gets attention is worse than neglecting a third of an artist’s output. It’s the neglect of other artists for fit the platform equally well. For example, I’m not liable to hear anything by The Smithereens on our local stations, let alone hear anything by newer artists who are attempting to keep the Central Jersey music scene alive and are met with a fair amount of underground support but indifference by the gatekeepers.

Oh, and by the way, the gates were removed long ago. There’s hardly anything left to keep. So we end up with a form of creative brain drain. Performers used to strike out for Brooklyn because their home state won’t give them the time of day. Now, even Brooklyn is too gentrified to handle it, and Austin, Texas and/or Arizona have become havens.

I have answers to the problem, but I suspect that these too would be disregarded by those who need to pay attention to them most. Those who would pack their playlists full of “Stairway to Heaven,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and, yes, “Dancing In The Dark,” “Glory Days,” “You Give Love A Bad Name,” and “Livin’ On A Prayer” are not dissuaded from the post-generational desire to live in the past and soundtrack it accordingly.

So my statement is this: happy anniversary, Magic. What are you, the listener, going to do about it? 

TV Review:  “Twin Peaks”

David Lynch has been called many things:  The Wizard of Weird, The Mayor of Oddville, Visionary, and even Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana. All descriptions are, to an extent, accurate.  However, one big thing Lynch did on April 8, 1990 was to change television by imprinting his skewed way of looking at the world upon a larger audience.  He did this with his unique murder-mystery show, “Twin Peaks.” On the surface, the story was about the murder of a revered small town high school girl, Laura Palmer. Laura is found wrapped in plastic on the banks of the town’s river. Her death creates much wailing and gnashing of teeth among her family, friends — and even one member of the police force. Indeed, it seems almost everyone in Twin Peaks is affected by Laura’s death, but it also catches the interest of the FBI – more specifically one agent, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). Cooper is investigating a series of murders in the Northwest that seem to be committed by the same person.  Sure enough, Cooper — with assistance of the town’s sheriff, Harry Truman — starts an investigation into the question that propelled the series:  Who killed Laura Palmer?  

This being David Lynch’s project, “Twin Peaks” wasn’t a boilerplate murder-mystery. Instead Lynch delved into the quirkiness and strangeness of the town’s residents.  The show also dovetailed into the realm of other dimensions — where spirits guide some characters in the material world to commit evil acts. Some of those acts include, rape, incest, and murder. Pretty heavy stuff for network TV back in 1990.  But ABC took a chance on the show (mostly because they were at the bottom of the ratings game) and it paid off.  People seemed intrigued by Lynch’s mix of horror and humor, grotesque and idiosyncratic, and tension and release. So much so, that 25 million people tuned in each week to watch “Twin Peaks” in its first season. The show’s death knell, alas, was when network executives pressured Lynch to reveal the killer early on — which Lynch thought was a terrible idea. He was right. Once we knew the answer to “Who killed Laura Palmer,” the show veered off course into tangents that were just weird for weird’s sake.  

Flash forward 25 year later, after two seasons and a feature film in 1992, and “Twin Peaks” gets a another life on Showtime. There’s been a lot of secrecy surrounding the production of the show. Even the actors had no idea (beyond their lines and their scenes) what the overall plot was. Lynch knows that in our current age, it’s really difficult to keep plot secrets from leaking on the Internet, so it’s good that he was able to maintain that sense of mystery.  

So, what has he wrought?

From the season premiere, it’s difficult to say because instead of starting with something tangible like the murder of a high school girl, he opts for a more diffuse beginning that doles out clues both visually and stylistically (backwards talking with subtitles is featured quite a bit). There are also a number of locations that go beyond the town of Twin Peaks. Indeed, we meet new characters in places South Dakota, Las Vegas, and New York City where both strange and menacing things happen. Agent Cooper is back playing two roles (one as the “good” Cooper, and the other as his doppelganger), we also get to visit with some of the Twin Peaks regulars like Lucy, Andy, Hawk, The Log Lady, Laura, Shelly, Ben, Jerry, and a few others who don’t do a hell of a lot to advance the plot. Indeed, much of “Twin Peaks” is devoted to reuniting viewers with characters they haven’t seen in over two decades — while setting in slow motion events that will culminate into another battle between good and evil. Without giving away important details in the premiere, I have to say that as a fan of the series (and of Lynch’s work in general), I struggled with the first two episodes. There was a lot of style, a lot of weirdness, and a whole lot of nothing that transpired over the course of two hours. It’s okay for Lynch to take his time in telling this tale, but often the first two episodes just seem to be filling time. I’m hoping that he still has many tricks up his sleeve, so I’ll hold off detailing where, for me, the show just kind fell flat. However, knowing Lynch’s love of unconventional and scattered storytelling, it’s probably best just to buckle up and enjoy the ride for now.  

Film Review: “Alien Covenant”

Michael Fassbender plays the androids David and Walter in “Alien: Covenant”

[Note: this review contains spoilers]

The “Alien” movie franchise is a lot like an ocean liner. By that I mean it’s foolish to expect a large ship like that to be nimble and change course quickly while at sea. With “Prometheus,” a more apt metaphor would be comparing the film to The Titanic — with the screenplay as the iceberg that sunk it.  It was a visually stunning picture where all the technical elements needed to express the grandiosity of the film was executed with the highest levels of expertise by the production crew.  Unfortunately, the screenplay eclipsed all that hard work with a story of supposedly smart people who got dumber as the story progressed.

I wanted to like “Prometheus” because I bought the hype that if Ridley Scott was at the helm as director, he was the last best hope of righting a ship that had gone way off course by the third and fourth film in the franchise — along with the two “Alien vs Predator” films. When a sequel to “Prometheus” was announced, and Scott would once again sit in the director’s chair, I was more than a little dubious about the series getting any better. Fearing that Damon Lindelof would once again write a screenplay to another laughable episode of “Dumb People in Space,” I was close to bowing out of watching “Alien: Covenant.” Perhaps inertia got the better of me, but I did plunk down cash on the barrelhead (okay, cash was actually plunked down at the local cineplex box office) and went in expecting the worst.  To my surprise, “Alien: Covenant” is a much better film than its predecessor. By no means does it hold a candle to “Alien” or “Aliens,” but the film does have a more interesting story that, alas, doesn’t advance the larger narrative arc sketched out in “Prometheus.”  

Maybe he should have worn a space suit before walking around an alien planet.

If “Prometheus” was about the search for humanity’s creators, “Alien: Covenant” is about space pioneers who accidentally encounter a megalomaniacal android on a remote planet. The crew of the spaceship Covenant aren’t exclusively scientists, nor are they deep space miners, or even military types looking to kill an army of xenomorphs. No, these characters have a kind of wagon train spirit as they journey to their new home on Origae-6 — a planet that’s presumably been mapped out by probes and deemed ready for colonization. It’s only because of two random events (i.e., a solar flare and an accidental interception of a transmission) does the crew change direction to check out the source of the signal.

Katherine Waterston as Daniels goes a-huntin’ for a pesky alien.

What the crew finds is a derelict spaceship, dog tags, and picture of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw — one of the lead scientists of the doomed ship Prometheus. Why is she on this planet?  Well, that’s what they hope to find out. Pretty soon, members of the crew start getting sick after dust-like spores get absorbed into a couple of people. Things soon go south after those little spore grow into xenomorphs a la every other “Alien” movie we’ve seen. We also get to see what became of the only other survivor of the Prometheus:  David.  He’s been living on this planet for a decade, and in that time, has gone quite insane with visions of being a god to his own creation of aliens. In a way, “Alien Covenant” is more David’s story than that of the crew of the Covenant. David sees himself as superior to human life since he was activated on Earth. And since he sees himself as superior to humans, he also feels superior to those who created humans (i.e., The Engineers).  Turns out, the planet David is on is one that was formally populated with the Engineers — and in a flashback, it’s shown how David was instrumental in their demise.

“Alien: Covenant” tries to do a lot in two hours. There’s plenty of poetic and philosophical talk that references Byron, Wagner, and Milton while exploring the nature of good and evil, but there’s also the usual chest-bursting thrills we’ve come to expect from an “Alien” film.  However, one glaring element the film elided was something that was hinted at in “Prometheus:” who are the Engineers and why did they supposedly create — and then want to destroy — humanity?  That was the question that should have framed the story of “Alien: Covenant,” but instead we got a story about a power-hungry android who uses a crew of humans to further his god-like ambitions. This not to say that “Alien Covenant” fell flat like “Prometheus.” However, while the story doesn’t advance the Big Narrative in any meaningful way, it more than suggests that David’s vision of reigning in a Hell of his own creation means he sees himself as a fallen angel who, as John Milton wrote in “Paradise Lost,” is “self-begot, self-rais’d.” And of course there’s the use of Richard Wagner’s music in the film that signals in a not-so-subtle way that David, like Loge in Wagner’s “The Rhinegold,” is keen on destroying the gods — so only he and his alien creations remain.

ALBUM REVIEW: PAUL WELLER, “(Music From The Film) Jawbone”

For the first time in his long and storied career, Paul Weller has written, recorded and delivered his first movie soundtrack score, (Music From The Film) Jawbone.  Certainly, a labor of love, as the movie’s theme is about a boxer and Weller’s late father, John, was an amateur boxer in his younger days, the film stars Ray Winstone and writer Johnny Harris.  The plot is essentially a former boxing champion trying to once again gain glory.

 The thing about the music is it’s not what I would expect -from Paul Weller or from a soundtrack album  There are only 7 tracks and the opener, “Jimmy/Blackout” is 21:30 of soundscapes and ambience of twisting moods. There are some sound effects (like a radio dial being twisted) and melodically controlled guitar feedback; cellos and pianos float in and out and then a hard rock band kicks in at around 11 minutes and then disappears into an aural mist and continues this hypnotic path until 17 minutes in, a chorale starts to sing and Weller’s voice is heard in an echo, sounding not-too-dissimilar to Scott Walker (!) – an absolutely stunning and heart-stopping performance.

“The Ballad Of Jimmy McCabe” is soft, sweet, acoustic and sung with such gentility by Weller that it makes you want to weep; it’s an emotionally powerful track in its simplicity; easily, it’s one of the most beautiful things he’s ever written and performed; “Jawbone” is a heavy rock/effects workout with some fiery guitar and ending with snippets of dialogue.  “Bottle” is another tear-wrencher with Weller’s voice and acoustic guitar – it seems like he’s hitting new strides and getting better as he gets older, especially with his acoustic-based work while “Man On Fire” is another series of ambient soundscapes.

All in all, it’s a fine piece of work from someone I’ve loved and respected for 40 years and it seems to err on the side of true that no matter what, Paul Weller STILL knows how to deliver the goods.  It also makes me want to see this movie and how the music fits in.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

(Music From The Film) Jawbone is currently available

http://paulweller.com/home/

ALBUM REVIEW: THE HANGABOUTS, “Kits & Cats & Saxon Wives”

The Hangabouts, a hearty trio from the Detroit area, have just unleashed their sophomore full length album, Kits & Cats & Saxon Wives (a clever title!) and this one pops and rocks in all the right places.  A melodic aggregate of John Lowry, Gregory Addington and Chip Saam, these gentlemen mix together pop, psychedelia, Anglophile influences and Nuggets-styled garage rock in a heady stew, which comes up aces.  Produced and mixed by the band with mastering by Andy Reed (of the glorious Legal Matters), the sound is neo-vintage.

Starting with the album’s title track, you immediately hear/feel the influences – a mix of “…Mystery Tour”-era Fabs, the first “band” incarnation of The Bee Gees, some Barrett-eque undertones and a sound that recalls the style of recordings during the late ’60’s; “Cricket Time” is more of the same, with crisp riffs and a very Roy Wood/Move vibe and I need to point out that the harmonies are completely one-the-one with these gentlemen.  “Sinking Feeling” is what, in another era, would be the single and features Molly Felder on vocals – a deliciously classic pop song with acoustic guitar driving the musical body and an early ’70’s vibe; “Twelve Songs” is pop sweetness at its finest with shimmering guitars, a keyboard melody underlying and twangy riffs interspersed (listen for the organ break as well); “Selling Out” is, naturally, Lennon-esque with the piano and vocal opening and the structure; “All Day All Night” has a Dwight Twilley/Shoes vibe and is a delightful throwback to American ’70’s power-pop and “Follow The Sunshine” is a lower-volume but is a fine way to close this collection – a genuinely warm piece that suits its title and has that “feel good” emotion.

For a trio, this is a very well-fleshed out gathering of material – and certainly, The Hangabouts know their craft.  They have all the right elements of a great pop band and at this point in time, that’s more than one could hope and ask for.  Mark this one as another “must check out” – you will be very glad you did.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Kits & Cats & Saxon Wives is currently available

https://www.hangabouts.com/